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U.S. Open Preparations at Chambers Bay Coming to Fruition
Since it was surprisingly selected to host both the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open by the United States Golf Association, Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., has been a whirlwind of activity.
After successfully hosting the Amateur, won by Peter Uihlein and held only three years after it opened, Chambers Bay is now gearing up for the 115th U.S. Open, the first time this major golf championship will be held in the Pacific Northwest.
Pierce County - the owner of the course and the sprawling, undeveloped 950-acre property containing it - and the USGA are informally calling the tournament the "Northwest" U.S. Open, primarily because the event is expected to draw 235,000 golf fans and 4,500 volunteers not only from nearby Tacoma and Seattle - 40 miles to the north, but eastern Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, Canada, and the rest of the world as well.
The potential financial spin-offs - the tournament is expected to generate over $150 million regionally - are also great. Simply put, the U.S. Open will be the largest sporting event ever to take place in the nation's upper left-hand corner.
During a media session on November 19, Danny Sink, championship director for the 2015 U.S. Open, said, "Everyone is excited at the Golf House [the USGA's headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.] about having the Open at Chambers Bay."
The reasons for such anticipation are many. Not only is it following on the heels of successful Opens held at similar public courses like Bethpage Black in New York (the site in 2002 and '09) and Torrey Pines (2008), Chambers Bay will be the first true links course to host the U.S. Open. The layout along the shores of Puget Sound is grassed from tee to green with fine fescue just like classic U.K. links, another first for a U.S. Open.
Additionally, with its vast site Chambers Bay offers so many options for the tournament itself. USGA executive director Mike Davis, along with his agronomy staff led by Northwest regional director Larry Gilhuly, who helped set the course up for the U.S. Amateur - in conjunction with Chambers Bay's designers, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and associate Bruce Charlton, have been working for the past two years on fine-tuning the layout in an effort to test the field and identify America's golf champion.
With its sandy base (before the course was built the property was home for one of the nation's largest sand-and-gravel quarries), the course will certainly offer the "firm-and-fast" conditions sought by the USGA for its marquee championship, and the June event may provide varying weather - certainly shifting winds and perhaps rain - not often found at other U.S. Open venues.
Several changes have already taken place on the course, which will play as a par-70 for the U.S. Open. The first green - originally as elusive as a greased eel - was modified to accept well-played shots, with the catch basin left of the green raised up to not be such a par-drain.
Also modified was the seventh green - though the elevated surface on the 482-yard par-4 is still tough to approach, and a new ninth tee added. This par-3 that closes out the front nine originally played off stagger-stepped elevated tees down to a diagonal green oriented front-left-to-back-right heavily bunkered at the front and rear, with a towering, ball-banking mound behind. Now there's a new tee box at green level that plays from 220 yards. When describing this change, the always-exuberant Gilhuly rubbed his hands in glee at the prospects of how the planet's best golfers would handle it.
During the U.S. Amateur, Davis moved the tees more than 100 yards apart on the par-4 16th. It could be made into a par-5, with one of the other par-4s (including the first hole, where a moved-up tee could turn the par-5 into a brutal two-shotter) to keep par at 70 for all four rounds.
"We've never had a course as flexible as Chambers Bay for an Open," Davis told Cybergolf's Blaine Newnham in March. "We will play the first hole as a par-5 on some days, and a par-4 on others."
The yardage on the 15th, a par-3 with Chambers Bay's only fir tree in the background, can be set up from 145 to 245 yards. The 18th, originally a fairly straightaway par-5, has been toughened up considerably by a cavernous bunker - entered and exited via a ladder - in the second-shot landing zone.
When I played the course this spring it seemed as if it were six to seven shots harder than my previous round there, primarily because of the expansion of waste bunkers into many fairways and faster greens; these greatly rolling, fescue surfaces have matured.
Gilhuly also noted that some greens could be extended simply by lowering the mowing heights of back areas, something that's "never been done in a U.S. Open," he said. As it has since its debut, Chambers Bay boasts massive teeing grounds that also provide many set-up options.
As for coverage of the championship, I asked Pete Kowalski, the USGA's longtime director of Championship Communications, about the media center for Chambers Bay. "The Golf Writers Association of America always does a Monday-morning quarterback report in its newsletter about the media center following all four annual major championships," I inquired. "If you were to put on your Carnac (the Magnificent) hat, how do you think Chambers Bay will fare with the media on the Monday after the 2015 U.S. Open?"
Pete said that space and course access - unlike Merion in 2013, for example, where the media center was far away from the action - won't be a problem at mammoth Chambers Bay. Nor will all the accoutrements - outstanding food, attentive staff, ergonomic chairs, electronic and video systems, etc. - that make the U.S. Open the Cadillac of golf tournaments for the media.
Transportation - for fans and the media - might be an issue, Kowalski noted, as the normal way of getting to the course involves winding through residential roads to reach the site near water level beside Puget Sound. But Sink said the USGA is working on an inventive solution to ameliorate perhaps the biggest issue with Chambers Bay.
After discarding a possible plan to have cruise ships moored offshore on the Sound house and deliver - via shuttle - attendees, Sink said the USGA has been working with BNSF Railway and Sound Transit for train service that will run directly from Seattle to the course. This would allow people to stay in Seattle - a much bigger city than Tacoma with many more downtown hotels - and ride the rail to Chambers Bay, about a 30- to 40-minute trip.
"It's clearly going to have to be a regional event," Deputy Pierce County Executive Kevin Phelps admitted to KIRO-TV's Amy Clancy, "especially when it comes to hotel rooms. We certainly have our limitations in Pierce County."
Sink hopes a temporary station will be set up beside the train tracks that pass just a few yards from the course - making this the first time a transit route was created specifically to transport U.S. Open crowds to the championship venue. "Those meetings (with train officials) started the minute we got here," Sink said. "We've got great resources right beside Chambers Bay . . . It's a possibility that we're really excited about."
Even though the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay is a year and a half away, the organization that's putting it on is certainly up to the challenge to make it memorable. There's no question the golf course will do its part.
Jeff Shelley is the editorial director of Cybergolf.
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