The watershed moment for Northwest golf came in 2006 when a car full of United States Golf Association officials pulled up to a gravel-pit-turning-golf-course in University Place.
It wasn’t the first time USGA brass from New Jersey traveled to the region in hopes of deeming a majestic new golf course to be worthy of hosting a U.S. Open. And nobody in the car would have been surprised if the visit to Chambers Bay Golf Course ended the way it had before: Close, but not quite.
It had happened before. Oregon’s Bandon Dunes was too far from a metropolitan area and Pumpkin Ridge near Portland was too short.
It took only a few minutes for Larry Gilhuly, a USGA official from Gig Harbor, to realize this time was going to be different.
“Their jaws literally dropped,” Gilhuly said.
USGA west region director Ron Read coordinated the visit, as he had previous trips to Bandon Dunes and Pumpkin Ridge, and said even though the course was still a year away from opening “you could clearly envision what they had in mind.”
On what’s now the sixth fairway, Gilhuly asked Mike Davis, USGA director of rules and competitions, the $100 million question – “Can this course host a U.S. Open?”
“He said, ‘It’s a slam dunk,’ ” Gilhuly said.
Not only was Chambers Bay awarded the Northwest’s first U.S. Open, set for 2015, but the USGA gave it this year’s Aug. 23-29 U.S. Amateur, arguably it’s second most prestigious championship.
The Northwest’s role in the national golf scene had changed forever.
Read says the USGA had long yearned to bring the U.S. Open to the Northwest, but could never find the right course.
“It is a great golf market,” Read said. “We tried and tried, and suddenly here was Chambers Bay.”
John Bodenhamer of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association says the region had long battled misconceptions that kept it from luring big-time golf events.
“I think there was some concern that it rains too much here in June,” Bodenhamer said. “Certainly it does rain some years, but that’s really a misconception.”
When Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish hosted the 1998 PGA Championship, the Northwest’s first major in 44 years, the golf world started to take more notice of the region.
“It just confirmed this is a great region for golf,” Bodenhamer said.
Sahalee was in line to host the PGA Championship again this year. While it was widely thought the PGA of America dropped Sahalee because it is too short and too small to pack in large crowds, the official reason was to avoid a conflict with February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
Still, the Western Washington golf scene hasn’t been the same since.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” said Michele DeLancy, director of the Boeing Classic, an annual event on the Champions Tour for 50-and-over pros.
In 2002, Sahalee hosted the NEC World Championships. In 2005, the Boeing Classic began at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge and is expecting its largest crowd (it drew 70,000 last year) this year, thanks to tour rookie and Seattle native Fred Couples.
In 2006, after more than a decade without bringing a championship to Washington, the USGA staged the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Bremerton’s Gold Mountain Golf Complex.
The USGA was impressed by the event that had more than 350 volunteers provide such perks as individual shuttle service from the airport for more than 50 tournament officials and all 156 golfers.
“We wanted everything to be a ‘Wow,’ ” said Scott Alexander, director of golf at Gold Mountain. “… We know when we host an event like this we are promoting golf in the Northwest.”
Gold Mountain is bidding to host the 2014 men’s and women’s NCAA golf tournaments.
The golf course failed to secure the 2012 and ’13 NCAA championships. Two acclaimed courses (Los Angeles’ Riviera Country Club in ’12 and the Atlanta Athletic Club in ’13) that rarely bid for the event were chosen instead. However, Gold Mountain received positive feedback from the NCAA.
“They (NCAA officials) said ‘We love what you have done,’ ” Alexander said. “They asked us to put in another bid.”
The rise of golf in the area hit another high this year.
Sahalee hosted the U.S. Senior Open to rave reviews in July. Bolstered by the second-place performance of Couples the event lured 133,672 spectators. The final round drew 31,444 fans.
Now, Aug. 23-29 Chambers Bay will host the U.S. Amateur while TPC Snoqualmie Ridge is hosting the Boeing Classic.
In 2011, Gold Mountain will host the U.S. Junior Amateur, and then, arguably, golf’s biggest championship descends on Tacoma in 2015.
The USGA expects the Chambers Bay U.S. Open to break attendance records, with one official saying daily crowds could be larger than 70,000. (This year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach capped attendance at 37,500 per day.)
“I can’t believe we are going to have a U.S. Open and a U.S. Amateur in a our backyard,” said Ken Still, a longtime PGA Tour pro who grew up in University Place riding his bike near Chambers Bay. “I’m happier than a pig in a pile of manure.
“This is big stuff. You can’t put too many adjectives in front of this.”
Bodenhamer thinks the U.S. Open will lure golf fans to the Northwest for years to come.
“Having the PGA in 1998 and the U.S. Senior Open this year is great exposure,” Bodenhamer said. “But it’s just a hundredth of what we are going to see with the U.S. Open.”
This month’s U.S. Amateur has the secondary mission of working out the kinks to make sure the course is perfect come 2015. If it is, the Northwest, thanks to Chambers Bay, could earn a regular spot in the U.S. Open rotation.
USGA officials – drooling at the potential to pack in enormous crowds, cater to the region’s successful corporations and get a chance to tap the Seattle-Tacoma, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., TV markets – seem eager to make Chambers Bay a U.S. Open regular.
“There may not be a golf course in the world that has the potential of Chambers Bay,” Read said. “… It’s an annuity that will go on forever.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497