Excitement Builds for U.S. Open at Chambers Bay

By: Blaine Newnham

The design is sublime. The rush to be a volunteer and a sponsor is unprecedented. Arrangements are being made so train service will connect downtown Seattle and Chambers Bay.

Chambers Bay (photo by Aiden Bradley)

In a little more than a year, the USGA will stage its grand gamble, holding its 2015 U.S. Open Championship in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, playing on a man-sculpted links course alluringly laid out against a backdrop of Puget Sound, its islands and the distant snow-tipped Olympic Mountains.

The 2015 Open will be the last with the anchored putting stroke and the first televised by Fox Sports.

All this on a course less than 10 years old. In fact, the USGA selected Chambers Bay to hold the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open eight months after the course opened.

In the meantime, there have been changes to the course's 18 holes - tweaks on some and new greens on others. But, in any case, less than what was done at both Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines in their transformation from public course to championship venue.

Although USGA agronomist Larry Gilhuly assured media types recently in Seattle that he did not have concerns about the preparation of the course for the Open, there are concerns, so much so that officials have gotten approval by Pierce County to limit play this spring and again in the fall - and presumably in the months prior to the Open, if necessary.

Rounds approached nearly 40,000 last year, paying the bills and servicing the debt on the development of the $24-million project. That is the good thing.

The bad thing is that there was noticeable wear on the greens, so much that No. 7 was taken out of play and Nos. 10 and 13 were seeded and grown-in all over again.

"That," said Gilhuly of the work on the putting surfaces, "was unprecedented." As Gilhuly noted, you don't redo a green less than two years before a U.S. Open.

But this is different as this will be the first Open played on fine fescue grasses, as well as the first played in the Northwest.

Fescue grasses, especially in the winter, don't do well with wear, and the native grasses grow when the fescue doesn't. The last thing officials want to do is get a bad rap for the tumbling Chambers Bay greens during the Open.

The plan is to have the course playing to capacity this summer when the fescue is strong and the green fees are high to allow the capture of as much revenue as possible.

But this spring, play will be curtailed. There will be days when groups aren't allowed on the course until 11 a.m.

Outside the ropes, USGA officials have been overwhelmed by the interest in the Open. The volunteer spots were filled within hours, not months, as is normal.

There was a story in the Seattle Times about corporate sales being so far ahead of normal that officials were concerned some potential buyers might end up shut out.

"They've never had to jump on something this early, but they might have to here," Mimi Griffin, head of corporate sales for the event, told The Times. "Our inventory is getting a lot lower than it usually is this far out."

Griffin noted corporate sales generally take off immediately after the previous year's U.S. Open ends. But with the 2014 event in Pinehurst, N.C., still more than three months away, Griffin said she is down to single digits in the number of remaining platinum, gold and Puget Sound packages for premium tents and suites at Chambers Bay.

Tickets to the general public will go on sale in June, just prior to this year's Open, and there might not be any for sale. (USGA members get the first shot at available tickets.)

Despite sitting on lots of land - nearly 300 acres - the daily spectator limit is expected to be 35,000. There was early talk that the course could hold massive crowds, up to 75,000, but that has been revamped since the 2010 U.S. Amateur.

While the dunes offer great viewing outlooks, they proved difficult for spectators to climb. Some slipped and injured themselves on the slippery fescue. In general, movement around the course will be difficult because of the hilly terrain, also unrivaled in Open history.

Officials have built a wide asphalt roadway through the center of the course to ease getting to various places on the course.

The exact number won't be known for awhile, but more bleacher seats than usual will be in place, especially along No. 18, making Chambers Bay took more like a British Open venue.

The course will play as a par 70 for the Open; two of the original par-5s - Nos. 4 and 13 - will both be set up to play as long, uphill par-4s. The interesting development is that the first and 18th holes will likely alternate each day, one a par-5 and the other a par-4.

Built on a sand and gravel mine, the course is unquestionably firm and fast, just like the USGA wants for a U.S. Open. In some cases, like the U.S. Amateur held in August, it was too firm and fast.

To make the course a little less random - balls rolling off cliffs and into sandy deaths - the greens on Nos. 1, 4, 7, and 13 were reshaped, as was the surrounds on the eighth hole. Fairway bunkering was added to No. 5, and the rough was allowed to start growing in strategic locations.

But the quality of the greens will make or break Chambers Bay. And it may be because of too much play, or too little.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "America's St. Andrews," which tells the colorful back-story of how Chambers Bay was selected as the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. Due for release on October 1, 2014, the book may be pre-ordered at www.AmericasStAndrews.com. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.