Longitudes & Latitudes Meshing at Chambers Bay

By: Blaine Newnham

The gamble is paying off. Chambers Bay will be a terrific site for the 2015 U.S. Open.

I spent the day climbing over sand dunes in pursuit of the best views of the best players at the final day of stroke-play qualifying for this week's U.S. Amateur, which was being played for the first time on a public course, the first time on fescue grasses and for the first time on a layout measuring more than 7,700 yards.

As far as I could tell, the golf course in University Place, Wash., humbled players and delighted spectators, so firm and fast that it was at times too firm and fast, a links test true to the game's founding - if frustrated - fathers.

And all the while, so beautiful, the views of the water and mountains breathtaking and the course looking brown and slick like something on the edge of the Firth of Forth, not Puget Sound in the upper-left-hand corner of the U.S.

"I've never played anything like this," said Brian Higgins of Bellingham, Mass. "How do you explain how firm the course is without dropping a ball on cement and watching it bounce."

Added Eric Steger of Noblesville, Ind.: "I wish the Open were here next year so I could see how the pros attack it. It is so unlike anything I've ever played, and so much fun. It's not the same shots you normally hit. You have to be creative, try things you've never tried.

"When you're trying to qualify for the U.S. Amateur that isn't exactly comfortable, but it is awfully fun."

"It is pretty insane, but also pretty fun," intoned Nick Taylor, the star player at the nearby University of Washington and the country's most decorated collegiate golfer. "I've probably played it eight times before this month but it has never been like this. It is concrete with grass, but the same for everyone and a course that demands (that) you be creative.

"It will be an awesome match-play course this week. You have to hit two perfect shots to get a birdie putt. The reality is you can make a par and win a hole."

The color of the course is not to be confused with green or the lush grasses of a nearby park. "That grass is over-watered and over-fertilized," said Larry Gilhuly, the USGA's agronomist for the Western states, of the neighboring green belt. The new order of the USGA wants to spend less money and water maintaining golf courses. Chambers Bay is its new poster child.

Chambers Bay had never been as firm and reckless as Bandon Dunes in Oregon; nor as brown. Now it is. "We'll have it firm," promised Mike Davis of the USGA. "The fescue won't die when we turn the water off, it will just go dormant."

The USGA picked Chambers Bay to host the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open eight months after the course's opening, an almost obscene gesture for such a storied old organization.

But their instincts are right. Here was a part of the country which had never hosted an Open, a place with splendid summer weather, no thunderstorms or natural causes to quell the excitement of a big golf tournament.

A place where the time zones work for network television on a site big and bold enough to house 70,000 fans a day, the most ever for an Open. A public place - within 20 minutes of SeaTac International Airport - along a working railroad line, up against blue waters dotted with small ferries and fishing boats, and within eyeshot of the jagged, snow-capped Olympic Mountains.

But will the golf course hold up? Locally, the big issue has been for it to survive limited public play and public criticism of a $20 million development that wasn't built to provide golf for locals, but to promote business and tourism.

So far, the course has had enough rounds (at $175 green fees - tops) to exceed operating expenses, but not enough to pay off all the debt incurred while building it.

When it opened, to the shock of Northwest golfers, the greens were slow and sandy; the whole place looked a little like what it had been: a sand and gravel pit. There was speculation the Open might be moved elsewhere because of the poor quality of the greens.

And with only one tree and massive fairways, would the course be tough enough for a U.S. Open? The slope from the back tees was only 135.

Well, the questions will be answered this week. Welcome to the world of links golf.

Surely, the course is suitably tough, as witnessed by the scores of the world's best amateurs; so far, less than a handful have broken par on Chambers Bay.

The greens are magnificent, rolling better than 11 on the Stimpmeter, easily fast enough for the dastardly slopes crafted by designer Robert Trent Jones II and his associates, Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi.

Gilhuly says the course is just about perfect, the grass surrounding the greens as firm as the greens. He admitted there have been a few times when it was too firm, but added that was all part of the learning process for the U.S. Amateur, and eventually, the U.S. Open.

As far as the fans, the viewing is spectacular. Better than any major course I've ever seen. You can't see anything at St. Andrews. You can see everything here from the manufactured dunes that serve as perfect vantage points throughout the course.

On Tuesday, for the second straight day, more than 3,000 spectators were in attendance- much to the delight of the USGA. An official from the host committee said ticket sales and corporate sponsorships will cover the nearly $1 million Chambers Bay had to raise to pay for hosting the 2010 Amateur.

So far, the golf course is holding its own. "It is such a task to make a par out there, let alone a birdie," said Taylor, this year's Ben Hogan award winner who finished as the low amateur in last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, another municipal course.

"It should be a great test for the Open.''

And the 2010 Amateur, too.

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.