Flexibility of Chambers Bay Alluring to USGA

By: Blaine Newnham

It started with a little press-room banter at the U.S. Amateur Thursday afternoon. One writer speculated on the changes that might be made to fledging Chambers Bay for the 2015 U.S. Open scheduled here.

Said another, "They'll be making lots of changes, I'll tell you that."

"Like changing the greens to bent grass," added yet another pundit.

This is not your normal championship golf course in the U.S., seen as dusty and unruly by some and pure golf by others. The debate may never end.

If you think Chambers Bay looks like a moonscape on the Golf Channel telecasts this week, then you ought to see it for real, where it is shockingly brown compared to what it was a couple of weeks ago.

While the unfiltered truth is that the "greener course" as depicted on TV might help sell future rounds, it wasn't the way "golf was meant to be played," to borrow a phrase from Bandon Dunes, some 400 miles to the south on the Oregon coast.

"I saw it on television and I complained," said Mike Davis, the man who sets up the courses for USGA championships and appreciates a tawny hue. "The course is brown and tan and we should be proud of that."

Davis admits it has taken most of the week to figure out how much or how little water Chambers Bay needs this time of year to give a golf ball a true links ride. But he also contends the course is giving the USGA everything it wanted when it came here.

"I'll admit it was too firm during the qualifying, but the course is perfect today," said Davis. "The greens are running 11.5 on the Stimpmeter, exactly where we wanted them."

Davis explained the USGA's newfound interest in firm, fast surfaces. "It showcases a different kind of golf in America," he said. "Most of our events entail hitting a ball to a spot. It doesn't matter how you get there - high, low, draw, cut - if the ball stops. Here you have to think your way around, hit it one place and know it will end up somewhere else. So it does, indeed, matter how you hit the shot."

Scott Langley of St. Louis, the NCAA champion from the University of Illinois who advanced to Friday's quarterfinals with an easy 6-and-4 win over Ryan McCarthy of Australia, talked about thinking his way around the course.

"I had way too much fun in the practice rounds trying to figure things out by hitting the ball off all the slopes around the greens. I was being a kid out there."

He mentioned stinging a 3-iron on the par-4 10th to keep the fairway bunkers out of play and a shot to No. 3 that missed the green by 10 yards but ended up near the hole. "People probably thought I missed the shot," he said. "But it was where I knew I needed to hit it to stay on the green."

After Tuesday's second day of qualifying, the greens were drenched, some receiving their first water in weeks. "I'm sure we won't get everything right in 2015 for the Open," said Davis. "But assuming that the tournament will be back, we'll learn each time."

Davis said he never worried about the quality of the greens at Chambers Bay, or the eradication of poa annua grasses - endemic in the Pacific Northwest - from the greens and fairways. He said he did worry about the ability of Pierce County to spend the money necessary to get the course ready, to finish it, as he put it, such as edging bunkers and pulling out Scotch broom from the vast waste areas.

The flexibility of the design has been on display throughout the week, delighting Davis and most of the players. There can't be a more adjustable course in the world. It has six par-4s that can be made drive-able and seven that stretch out 490 yards or longer.

As the winds predictably shifted Wednesday and whipped in from the southwest, Davis moved the tees back almost 100 yards on the much-photographed par-3 15th, to 246 yards, and then moved them up 100 yards on the par-4 16th, to a reachable 279 yards. No one made much of it, but the 11th, a downwind par-4, played 539 yards Thursday, making it the longest par-4 in USGA championship history. The average score was 5.019.

In three different matches, the player ahead in the match coming up to 16 chose to lay up, while the player behind in the match drove the green and ultimately won the hole.

Davis liked the use of the alternate green on No. 5 Wednesday, cutting the hole in length by 100 yards, and the front tee area on the par-3 third, making the hole no more than 130 yards.

"With the pin right behind the bunker, the only way to get there is to hit the ball short and right of the hole," said Davis. "Go for the pin and you are off the green. It takes evaluation, it takes commitment, and it takes execution."

So, according to Davis and despite the remonstrations of the press-room wags, there will be no overhaul of Chambers Bay for the 2015 Open.

Davis did admit sharing concerns about the ability of the green on No. 7 to hold long, uphill shots. The false front is notorious for sending balls 50 yards back down the hill.

Yet he doesn't foresee radical departures for such a versatile golf course. "We won't mandate anything to Chambers Bay," said Davis, who added that the reason for doing something on the seventh green might be as much for the everyday player as the best pros in the world, who will have to think their way around this course, too, five years from now.

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 birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.