U.S. Amateur golf championship: Chambers Bay ready for close-up

CHAMBERS BAY: Unique course tweaked for its first big event, the U.S. Amateur

August 15, 2010 

“The gears shift. Dust flows free.

The soil moves near the sea.

Shaping the features from the land

Glazing it with crystal sand.”

– Robert Trent Jones Jr.

Besides designing golf courses, Robert Trent Jones Jr. is a poet – constructing prose about nearly every world-class layout he’s drafted, including those verses about Chambers Bay Golf Links.

No secret by now, Chambers Bay is one of Jones’ masterpieces. Opened in 2007, the Scottish links-style course will be the first of its kind designed by a modern architect to host a U.S. Open, coming in 2015.

Go back five years to when Jones and his team first set foot on the deserted sand-and-gravel pit along Puget Sound. The 250 acres of mounds and valleys were stunning to view, and desirable to mold.

Jones envisioned a site to hold a major championship – not a U.S. Open, which he called a “vague, mysterious dream,” but a U.S. Amateur.

“We saw it as more of a match-play course than a medal course,” the 71-year-old Jones said.

Starting Aug. 23, more than 300 of the world’s best amateur golfers will descend upon Chambers Bay to play in the week-long U.S. Amateur – with the winner emerging from a 36-hole match-play final.

This won’t be any ordinary match play event, either. To advance – to win – a different style of golf will have to be utilized. It’s called “ground game” – a term very unfamiliar in America, but popular in the United Kingdom for that region’s links-style venues.

“For a U.S. golfer, it’s not natural,” said Lakewood’s Michael Putnam, a Nationwide Tour professional. “There’s nothing natural about hitting shots 10 feet off the ground, only to watch it roll 60 or 70 yards.”

But that is what Chambers Bay will demand.

“It’s tough. You can stand over a shot and visually see what to do,” said Oklahoma State junior Peter Uihlein, the top-ranked amateur in the country. “Pulling it off is a whole another story. You have to be creative, and control your ball … because Chambers Bay has so many nooks and crannies.”

Level spots are rare. Elevation changes on holes are common – sometimes as drastic as 120 feet. Mounds and banks full of gnarly, tall fine-fescue grass lurk in the middle of fairways and protect undulating greens.

Even though Chambers Bay will play longer than 7,700 yards on most days, distance off the tee shouldn’t be the biggest factor. It’s figuring out the roll – the ground game – on shots U.S. golfers normally are not required to hit.

To have the course play properly for links-style golf – fast and firm – course officials had to put in extra work the past year in addition to building nine new tees for holes.

Three areas of emphasis for course modifications:

HAZARDS

Bunkering was a key element in the original construction of the layout, and superintendent David Wienecke and his crew have had to find ways to distinguish the edge between grass and sand.

In the past, course officials used machines to maintain the hazards, with only a handful of people hand-raking the edges. Now, the crew has expanded to three people raking the bunkers full-time, with 10 others raking the edges.

During the Amateur, about 50 volunteers will rake the hazards before every round.

“It’s changed dramatically,” said Gig Harbor’s Larry Gilhuly, one of the USGA’s leading agronomists. “It’s re-established what the architects wanted.”

ROUGH

Over past winter and fall, areas the equivalent of almost a million square feet – 22 acres – in the course’s dunes were hydroseeded with two variations of fescue.

“That is a huge commitment,” Gilhuly said. “What you see now, the brown (grass) contrast to the turf area is pretty dramatic, and has helped with the course’s definition.”

GREENS

How to maintain the greens presents the biggest challenge.

Over the past year, Wienecke has added grass seeding as a way for the greens to gain more density so USGA officials could firm them up for the Amateur.

“How far can we take these greens?” Gilhuly said. “We believe that is going to be in the 101/2- to 11-foot range (on the Stimpmeter).”

Smoothness is as important as the speed of the greens. Again, Wienecke had to get innovative and find ways to brush the surface to make the grass stand up right.

All in all, Chambers Bay is nearly ready for its first big test run.

“I’ve told Dave, we’ll do less tweaking to Chambers Bay (from now to the start of the tournament) than we did at Sahalee for the U.S. Senior Open,” Gilhuly said. “As we dry down (or hand water) the golf course … we’ll tweak the ground for approach shots.”

Yet one question cannot be answered until the tournament starts – how will Chambers Bay play in this kind of fast-and-firm setting for a major tournament?

“Coming into this (U.S. Amateur), this golf course, I would say, has more question marks how holes will play than any we’ve been to,” said Mike Davis, the USGA director of rules and competitions. “I’m perplexed on how a few will play, but I can’t wait to see.”

Davis said he has assigned volunteers at different junctures of every hole to track where every drive goes, how far down the fairway it travels, and the direction of approach shots in an effort to get feedback on how Chambers Bay might play for the 2015 U.S. Open.

“Match-play appropriate, the golf course is likely to yield a wide range of scores – birdies and ‘Xs,’ ” Chambers Bay general manager Matt Allen said. “(Jones) built something perfect for that.”

Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

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