Golf: Twists and turns of Chambers Bay link golfers to purest form of game
The pro shop is situated high above the golf course and provides a panoramic view of what awaits a first-time visitor.
Below sits a moonscape of dunes and mounds, knobs and knolls, slants and slopes. Eighteen holes weave through the sandy terrain, bordered in the distance by railroad tracks and Puget Sound. A slice of Scottish links just outside of Tacoma.
It is spectacular sight, and it only gets better on the first tee.
Shortly after opening in 2007 Chambers Bay was named America’s best new public course by Golf Digest. In 2010 Chambers Bay hosted the U.S. Amateur, the first time in the event’s then 110-year history it was held on a municipally-owned course. In 2015, Chambers Bay welcomes the U.S. Open for the first Open visit to a Pacific Northwest course.
“Just visually, the landscape of the place is somewhat foreign. People refer to it as a
moonscape sometimes and the pictures of individual holes don’t give you a sense of the expanse,” general manager Matt Allen said.
“The players in the (U.S.) Amateur really struggled to characterize it.
“I would ask people what they thought, people from all over the world, just like it will be with the U.S. Open. Time and time again, the best they could come up with was, ‘It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Truly unique.’ ”
Chambers Bay, located about 15 minutes off I-5, was built on what was previously a gravel mine. This masterpiece is accommodating to the world’s best players and high handicappers by virtue of Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s design.
“One of the hallmarks of links golf in general is no water hazards, no forced carries, no dense trees, really not many lost balls,” Allen said. “I’ve played 50-60 rounds here in 4 years and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve lost a ball.
“It’s going to extract plenty of strokes from you but it’s usually going to do that around the greens. The greens are big so people have a tendency to have a lot of putts. On occasion there’s a better place to be off the green than on the green, which is again a hallmark of links golf.”
On most holes it wasn’t easy to determine where the green started and the fringe ended. I used putter on nearly every shot within 25 yards of the flag, save for green-side bunkers and one foolish decision to chip over a crest beyond the 14th green.
That 407-yard hole underscored the fine line between par and double bogey. A bunker rests in the middle of the fairway – it comes into play more from a deeper tee box – and precision is needed on the second shot to a green guarded on the left by bunkers. My approach found the green for a few seconds before catching a hollow and trickling into a bunker. Three feet to the right and I would have been surveying a birdie putt. I left with a bogey.
Every hole leaves an impression but I’ll highlight a handful of favorites. The course starts with a difficult, 465-yard par 4 that will have the flexibility to play as a par 5 in the Open when a new tee box is constructed, probably this fall. Following the U.S. Amateur, the green was reconfigured to be more receptive to approach shots that previously filtered left down by the 18th tee.
I was in a bunker, maybe 75 yards from the green, but managed to make par. I faced difficult sand shots from that distance three times during the round.
No. 8, a 523-yard par 5, is the only hole on the course without sand (one hole on the back nine has a six-acre bunker). It’s straight, but the slope of the fairway influences balls to roll to the right. I learned that lesson when my second shot stopped five yards from trundling down the hillside.
Facing a 70-yard pitch to a back pin location, a wise playing partner suggested using the hill behind the green. The backstop worked perfectly and my ball drifted back within 12 feet of the cup. Allen had a 35-yard putt from the front edge but took out the guesswork by utilizing the backboard, leaving a 4-footer for birdie.
No. 10 is just 360 yards but the fairway narrows considerably if you choose driver. The approach is to an elevated green that is roughly 35-feet wide and framed smartly by two large dunes.
No. 12 is an uphill, 281-yard par 4. It’s reachable if you avoid a bunker roughly 40 yards from the green. A mound on the right can help steer drives, second shots and chips back on path, but the challenge is finding the correct level on an undulating green.
No. 15 is a downhill par 3, measuring 116 yards from the sand tees and a whopping 246 from the back tees. Sand surrounds three-fourths of the green and the left side features a pot bunker. The pin location – on this and most of the holes – can significantly alter your plan of attack. Puget Sound and the only tree on the course make for a scenic view from the tee box.
“The lone fir tree is iconic due to the exposure it got when it was vandalized,” Allen said. “Somebody came down one night and had too many beers and took an axe to it, but it survived. That hole probably gets photographed more than any other.”
The 18th is 514 yards, mostly uphill, with dunes and bunkers on both sides. A new pot bunker comes into play on second shots, especially from the deeper tee boxes. The hole also can play as a long par 4.
“Even now with the number of times I’ve played the course,” Allen said, “you finish a round and it’s, ‘I want to get back out