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Tacoma’s Chambers Bay first in Northwest to host U.S. Open

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis takes these phone calls all the time.

It usually begins with someone telling Davis, “I’ve got the perfect U.S. Open course for you.” It usually leads to nothing of the sort, rarely advancing beyond the original call.

But one call a decade ago commanded Davis’ attention. He listened as USGA western region director Ron Read described how a reclaimed gravel pit was being shaped into a world-class gem named Chambers Bay.

“I kind of held the phone out here and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard this one before,’ ” recalled Davis, raising both eyebrows and moving the phone away from his ear.

Read said the site was just outside of Tacoma on the shores of Puget Sound. Davis knew that the U.S. Open had never been staged in the Pacific Northwest.

“I said, ‘Keep going,’ ” Davis said.

Read told Davis the property had enormous potential, featuring elevation changes and stunning views of the sound.

“It’s gorgeous,” Davis thought, “that’s interesting.”

Read told him the site was huge, spanning nearly 1,000 acres.

“Really?” Davis said. “I’m thinking we have enough room for the infrastructure.”

Read told him the course was owned by Pierce County.

“So there’s going to be public access,” said Davis, fully aware Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines are the only municipal courses to host the U.S. Open. “The fact that people are going to be able to play a U.S. Open course is something very special.”

Read told him the course was being built on sand.

“Anybody that knows anything about golf courses knows any course built on sand is always going to be better than courses not built on sand,” Davis said. “That’s how all this started.”

The result of that phone call 10 years ago will be the playing of the 115th U.S. Open at scenic Chambers Bay on June 18-21. The U.S. Open is going where it has never gone before – the Pacific Northwest on a links-style course. The major championship’s typical tree-lined, tight fairways and ankle-deep rough will give way to Chambers Bay’s generous fairways that can shrink in size due to endless humps and bumps and knobs and knolls.

There’s one tree on the course and it doesn’t come into play. There’s no Bermuda grass here, just fine fescue, another U.S. Open first.

When Chambers Bay, now 8 years old, was awarded the national championship shortly after opening it became the first new course built since Hazeltine in 1967 to be selected. Recent sites Oakmont, Merion and Pinehurst have been in business for more than 110 years.

“This is a bold site, this is a big site, there’s a lot of scale to this site,” Davis said. “I’ve heard people say this is a wow site. We don’t have anything that we’ve played the U.S. Open on that is remotely similar to this, where you can be on parts of the property and see all 18 holes at once.”

It is the style of play – the ground game reminiscent of links courses in the British Open rotation, the 60-yard roll on drives and the approach shot that requires going to Point C to get from Point A to Point B – that will challenge the best players in the world and offer a new experience for fans in person and watching on television. Chambers Bay officials said they haven’t seen too many pros visit but they expect that to change in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

“It’s very similar to Whistling Straits, links course, very fast, some tee shots that are quite downhill, lots of slope, around the greens you really have to know the falloffs,” said defending champion Martin Kaymer, who won at remodeled Pinehurst No. 2 last year. “It’ll be one of those tournaments, similar to Pinehurst, where you can putt or do those bumps-and-runs.”

It’s a new look for a U.S. Open, and that fact has prompted grousing from some pros.

“As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course,” Ryan Palmer told USA Today last month. “Not with the way some of the greens are and the pin placements they can put out there.”

Palmer continued: “Tee to green the course is OK. It’s not bad. It’s a great piece of land, great scenery. Very fair off the tee. We played it soft. The greens were rolling 9s (on the Stimpmeter). If they get it rolling 10 and 12, it will be interesting.”

Tweeted Ian Polter: “Well several players have played Chambers Bay in prep for US Open. The reports back are its a complete farce. I guess someone has to win.”

Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck, responding on Twitter to reader queries, called Chambers Bay “one of the most visually spectacular courses on the planet.” He also noted: “It’s big boy golf, demanding power, precision, creativity and endless patience. I’m expecting an A-list leaderboard.”

Davis listens to players’ complaints every June. He pointed out that when Jack Nicklaus heard others griping about course conditions he told himself he didn’t have to worry about that player that week.

“This is a one-of-kind site for a U.S. Open and there are going to be players that just love the ground game, love the imagination and embrace it,” he said. “There are others that just want predictability. They just want something right in front of them. They don’t want to guess what’s going to happen when the ball lands.

“It would not be a U.S. Open if we didn’t get some chirping. It’s just part of it. We joke internally if nobody’s complaining we’ve done something wrong.”

If players want to do something right at Chambers Bay, Davis offered advice: “There’s no way a player will have success unless he really studies the golf course and learns it. The idea of a player coming in and playing two practice rounds and having their caddy just walk it and just use the yardage book, that person is done.”

Not so fast, said world No. 1 ranked Rory McIlroy, after a 7-shot victory at the Wells Fargo Championship. His reply to Davis’ comments: “What’s Mike Davis’ handicap.”

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