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The Walla to Walla Tour - A Cybergolf Diary (Part 1)
Day 1 - The Road to Chambers Bay
The Rolling Landscape of Chambers Bay
Warm clothes? Check. Laptop? Check. Clubs? That's a big check! And we were off to Seattle for the Walla to Walla Tour - golf in Washington State during the first week of January.
The weather report called for highs between 45 and 25 degrees, with lows in the teens, but no snow, thankfully. So I added four layers of fleece purchased from the country's truly great fleece clothier, Goody's of Vermont, and braced for the cold. As the song goes, "Now and again these things just go to be done." After all, the USGA was making changes to Chambers Bay in preparation for the 2015 Open and architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. would be there with various USGA and Pierce County executives.
I could also knock off two other courses on my list for my book, so this was a rare opportunity to get in a trip during what are ordinarily the doldrums of the golfing calendar, at least to a Northeasterner. I wasn't going to miss this.
1:30 p.m. EST, Jet Blue, JFK Terminal, NYC
It was the worst middle seat of my life. In fact, it was the first middle seat of my life, and I drew a short straw like you hear about in Seinfeld sketches. The fat woman from India on my right reeked of B.O. and pungent spices. She pulled out a take-out box of Indian food and immediately half the plane stank of curry and cumin.
Those of you who know me, also know that while I have a broad palate, I loathe Indian food: green mush, red mush, or yellow mush, and coarsely chopped mystery meat segments. No, thank you. As Vonnegut once wrote, never eat cuisine from a country that not yet had its day in the sun both historically and culturally. That's similar to the time my ex-girlfriend Britt made me try Ethiopian food. I took two bites of a dish made with something called "Magma Hot Tectonic Sauce" and set my whole body on fire. It sat in my stomach like a warm brick for three days; I didn't feel like eating at all during that time. That's a sure cure for famine in and of itself . . . but I digress.
The guy in the seat on my left wore far too much of a particularly sickly-sweet cologne. He smelled of freshly cut grass and limes. I hope he keeps away from open flames and beehives. He coughed all over me.
"Do you have a cold?" I asked him as he blew his nose, then hocked a loogie into a Kleenex.
"No, the flu," he responded. Directly behind me the baby screamed in my ear, a piercing wail. I had six hours of this, and dinner was not served on the flight.
6 p.m. PST, Seattle
But the good Lord smiled on me. I survived the flight without getting sick, and after a particularly good experience with the attendants at Enterprise Rental agency (Free upgrade! Cheaper rate! Great service! We like people who like us!), I arrived at the home of Jeff Shelley, my editor-in-chief at Cybergolf and dear friend. Arriving at his house after such a long, tiring journey felt like watching a golden sunset. He and his wife, Anni, a wonderfully kind person who brings the sun with her wherever she goes, welcomed me warmly.
"Great to see you, Jay," Jeff beamed. "You must be famished."
I was. Food, glorious food was exactly what I needed to wash away a long day of travel dust. "Let's go get some Indian food!" he said excitedly.
The irony was not lost on me. The Devil smiles at everybody all the time, all a man can do is smile back. So I laughed. How about Thai instead? And after a native-hot Thai beef salad and some Thai iced tea, I felt myself again. Well enough for four days of waking in darkness, choc-a-bloc interviews, long hours driving, and of painting all you readers a picture . . . one good word at a time. As one of my friends put it, there's a wild cry calling from the highway, like the sound of a Ragtime radio. Keeping one eye on the rearview, the other on the road, welcome to the travelin' show.
Day 2 - Chambers Bay
7:15 a.m. Puget Sound
The 5 a.m. wake-up call and hour drive were hell, but the sunrise was glorious. I'm as myopic as Mr. Magoo when driving at night. Want to take your life in your hands? Put me behind the wheel in darkness: Car-mageddon! The Garmin wasn't useful at all, trying to take me around Robin Hood's barn just to get to a place directly in front of me, and then falling off the dashboard into my lap time and again, so I used my handwritten directions instead. But my perseverance was rewarded. As I pulled into the parking lot the sky was slowly turning from a rich velvety purple to a royal blue, the course itself seemingly emerging from the Cimmerian fog of sleep to greet the new day as joyously as the golfers.
And there they were before me: 18 precious jewels, each prim as a cameo, yet as cunningly and carefully designed as the many intricate facets of the gemstone. Yes, everything you've heard about Chambers Bay is true, and more so. It richly deserves the U.S. Open, and it will be a brilliant and memorable host for 2015 and (hopefully) many more to come.
Much of the thanks go to the single-minded dedication and tireless passion of former county executive John Ladenburg. When I write a more full analysis of the course, we'll meet him in more detail. But John Ladenberg summed up his strategy for getting the USGA to pick Chambers Bay as the venue in one concise statement:
"Everything we did here, we did with one question in mind: Does this get us closer to or further away from getting a U.S. Open?"
And with that singular focus, the Pacific Northwest got its first national championship in 120 years of American golf history.
Chambers Bay is built on the remains of and old sand and gravel quarry. Millions of cubic yards of sand were just waiting to be turned into perfect terrain for golf. Here were two of the most critical things you need to design one of the greatest golf courses in the world: sand for great drainage and easy shaping, and an ocean for views. No less a personage than Mike Davis Executive Director and Tournament Coordinator for the USGA, said exactly the same thing.
Jay (right) Interviewing the USGA's Mike Davis
Davis was actually at Chambers Bay this day, along with Bob Jones, Jr., much of the Chambers Bay staff, some KemperSports reps, and various county executives and departmental officials. A group of about 20 would tour the course and discuss changes, particularly to hole Nos. 1, 7, 13 and 18. I would play my round with Brian Simpson, one of the course's assistant pros, and our two groups would meet up periodically during the round and compare notes.
Strictly as an aside, is there a better sports management group than Kemper? Possibly not. When you've got folks like Eric Christiansen, Simon Landon and Meg Godfrey running things not only do you get letter-perfect arrangements, but a writer gets real information - useful and accurate, not warmed-over baboon dung half-baked by some chump who couldn't write his name in the snow. Suzy Abrams Jones is another excellent pro over at Forgate CC and Tall Grass, but that's a story for another day.
Though 1.4 million cubic yards of earth were moved and shaped to create the golf course, the site looks eminently natural. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. did a masterful job here; it is, arguably, his greatest masterpiece to date. I had the chance to ask Jones about the course after the round:
RTJ: Chambers Bay is a place where many true believers in golf and in golf course architecture came together and built a marvelous golf course, but also gave a gift to the Pacific Northwest . . . It was a team effort to execute. It was like a symphony - everyone had their instrument to play, they hit all the high notes with both precision and passion, and together it created great links music.
It's a big, vast, open golf course, with no water holes and no trees as hazards, with strongly contoured greens. The ribbon tees add flexibility in length and can be set up to accommodate wind or other weather factors. It's a course for all seasons and it should play firm and fast.
JF: Why haven't we seen a design like this before you?
RTJ: It's hard for owners to overcome their predispositions. Some people like what they've seen before and, as you said, they are afraid of change because that vision gets in their heads. Some designers take risks and they might not get the best reception, but you have to take risks. You can be different and still be dull, but you can also be different and unforgettable. If you're going to be a leader, you have to take positions that are bold. Some people might like some of the holes or say they are unfair, but they have undeniable character.
Happily, Ladenburg and the rest of the Chambers Bay executives were more broad-minded than most, and welcomed all the undeniable and indelible character Jones infused into his golf holes. The routing winds in many directions; it's not just two simple loops of nine. Winding and twisting within itself, it is as intricately conceived a routing as mighty Oakland Hills' South Course, site of nine major golf championships. That's rarified air. The tees, fairways and greens are all one entity. I have never seen any golf course in the world where the tie-ins between these features and are smoothly and flawlessly executed as at Chambers Bay.
The weather gave us a little bit of everything, all in the span of half a day. It stayed cold from sunup to sundown, but with the exception of one 40-minute squall that blew in when we were on the 15th green, it was golfing weather, albeit in four layers of fleece and wick-away shirts.
Although every hole is great, and trying to pick "bests" or "favorites" is like giving a starving man a menu - you just want to look at it and say "okay" -
to me the best holes are Nos. 1, 4, 7, 12, 16 and 18.
I love false fronts and sides on greens, and the one at the first hole is one of the most severe in golf. Combined with a thumbprint in the green on the left side which can actually help funnel balls off the green, poorly played shots can result in a 40- to 50-yard walk of shame for the hapless golfer. Again, from my interview:
RTJ: I like to open with Beethoven.
JF: What do you mean by that?
RTJ: Right away, you're in for real music. You'll be carried away on a strong, powerful, and moving journey complete with harmonies and percussion. You will ride the course you will not be coddled.
JF: Do you do that with all your courses?
RTJ: No, but I do that on the ones that are great properties that lend themselves to that, like the Prince course at Princeville. The USGA asked us to refine the entrance to the first green. I'm alert when I'm pushing the shot values, taking them to the edge, but then occasionally, you have to edit and refine like you and I do with poetry. The entrance to the first green was radical before the changes, and the green repelled the ball sharply left.
JF: I thought I saw a thumbprint in the left side of the green.
RTJ: Yes, there is a there a catcher's mitt that would draw balls that were slightly mis-hit and send them almost all the way to the 18th tee. We want to give people options where to land the ball and yet have a seamless flow onto green. You still have to pick your spot where to land it on the approach, but you're not going to get a random bounce any more.
Back to the course description:
The fourth is a short but severely uphill par-5 that wraps around a deep scrub-filled bunker, a waste area you must avoid at all costs because the lies in these areas are not the easy flat, simple lies you get in the waste areas you'll see in Myrtle Beach. This is broken and uneven ground. If you get in there, there will be a penalty of a half-shot, possibly more. The fairway is rumpled and undulating, but also has steppes, flat areas you can play safely to tack your way up the hill to a tiny green perched on the edge of the hill.
The par-4 fifth cascades back down the hill. Feeling my oats after smartly playing my way up the fourth by hitting all those flat areas and scraping a par with a one-putt, I came to the fifth tee with an audience of about 25, including Davis and Jones and every visiting dignitary.
Although I've known Jones for five years now and been to tournaments with him, written about many of his courses, written poetry with the man and even worked with him as a lawyer, I had never hit a golf ball in front of him until then. So I didn't need to hear the conversation that was certainly taking place.
"Well! Let's see if Jay can play! No pressure!"
So in front of everyone, I promptly hit a goofy slice into a bunker on the adjacent fourth fairway.
"Hmm . . ." began one irreverent wag. "I guess that bunker is in play on this hole too."
I teed up another ball without looking behind me and hit a good one, cleanly down the left side of the fairway, with a little draw. Not "position A," but solid.
"Boy, the guy who plays after me sure is good," I quipped. The tee box broke up in laughter. Oh well, if you can't laugh at yourself, you can't laugh at anybody.
The rest of the day was a joy. I got in the right fairway bunker on seven and almost never got back out, but didn't fall victim to the false front which will drive the pros insane when they face it.
RTJ: Seven is a Cape hole off the tee. You have to have choose your line carefully in order to place the tee shot just over the Cape bunker, but not too far left. You want to be like Geoff Oglivy, a thoughtful player with control off the tee. He would love this hole and this course. Then you play over hummocks, which I call the Alps.
JF: I do too, and it place to a green that has a bowl-ish features.
RTJ: Exactly. I also call the two mounds the "Olympic Mountains." The green is elevated green 50 feet above you, and if you play too far left off the tee, you get a semi-blind shot. Play just over the bunker and you get a better view and angle to the elevated green.
Onward I go . . .
I got my first par of the year at the scenic drop-shot ninth and first birdie of the year at the par-5 13th. In between, I was delighted to see the best green on the course at the short, but narrow and uphill par-4 12th.
The Author in Chambers Basement
Finally, we came to 18. I dropped a ball in Mike Davis's new bunker, dubbed "Chambers Basement." About 80 yards short of the green and 12 feet deep, with steep walls on all sides, it reminded me of a larger, deeper version of Travis's coffin at the 18th at Garden City. I had heard only one person had ever reached the green from this bunker since it as added. I took my 9-iron, determined to try to reach the green. My sand game is one of my strengths; I even made a sandie from Pete Dye's fearsome San Andreas bunker at PGA West (Stadium Course) and had I been further left, where the face doesn't cramp the airspace of the shot, I might have been even more successful. As it turned out, I got it out of "Chambers Basement," though it hit the face in front of me, yet bounded about 40 yards down the fairway. But this time, I delighted my audience, instead of being comic relief. My pitch landed tight by the pin, checked and settled a foot away. Finish with a flourish indeed.
This may be Jones's greatest course to date, and though he's in his 70s, he's feeling his oats like a 30-year-old. Word on the street is that the design he submitted for the Rio Olympics is another links-like masterpiece, with ribbon tees, wide double fairways, and great green and fairway undulations.
In the case of Chambers Bay, it clearly has more character and originality than the Straits Course at Whistling Straits (where Dye did an excellent job yet wanted the nines to have a similar feel so pro golfers playing in majors who started on one side weren't at a disadvantage than players starting on the other), is stronger than Arcadia Bluffs, and is a proper rejoinder to Pacific Dunes, just easier to get to and with more places to stay and things to do once you're into town. There's even talk of gigantic cruise liners camped off shore where U.S. Open patrons can stay. Imagine that: taking a cruise to a golf major championship! How's that for a cool idea. But that's your USGA under Mike Davis.
The rest of the afternoon was wondrous. Chatting with Bruce Charlton, the invaluable second-in-command at RTJ2 Designs, and Mike Davis, who graciously sat for the first half of a long interview for my book, lots of spirited discussion with everyone over ideas to make the balls that roll back to the base of the Alps at seven not end up in divots, and generally good feelings that only golf can bring: new friends to meet, old friends to greet, and that warm glow only golf can bring.
I left as the sun set behind the Pacific. I wrote up my notes over sushi and sake, and got back to Jeff's in time to unwind for an hour with him and Anni, and with Waldo the cat (a dead ringer for Morris from the catfood commercials) and Stella, a Newfoundland mix. In bed by 10; it's another 5 a.m. wake-up call tomorrow, for another full day. It was a good start, but I was still a long way from home.
Next up: Gold Mountain with architect John Harbottle and Wine Valley.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.