A train whistles as it barrels by the nearby sound. Swirling wind picks up. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the world’s best golfer, tramples over crispy, brown grass, surveys the rolling dunes and vast amount of open space ahead before getting ready to strike an important shot, all in an effort to win a major championship.
Sound like a British Open?
It does, but in this instance, it isn’t.
Welcome to the 115th United States Open championship at links-style Chambers Bay in University Place.
The national open comes to the Pacific Northwest for the first time — with a touch of Scotland attached to it.
Golf balls will be bouncing around wildly on the hard, fescue-covered surfaces of Chambers Bay, which will still be flanked by a pair of Northwest icons — Puget Sound to the West, and Mount Rainer off in the distance to the East.
Because this U.S. Open won’t be held on a usual tree-lined, heavy-rough golf course, the 2015 championship will be a different wear-and-tear test of patience.
“You experience the bad bounce more in links golf than you do in (usual U.S. Open) golf,” Tony Jacklin, one of four English golfers in history to win a U.S. Open and British Open, said last week.
“That is just part of what links golf is. It is a test of patience as well as skill. If you haven’t gotten patience, you are not going to win. You just don’t always get the perfect result from a perfect shot.”
SITE: CHAMBERS BAY HIT MARK?
The Pierce County-approved design directive on Chambers Bay was concise from the get-go: Move land to build dunes; route holes to emphasize angles and elevation to bring in various conditions such as wind and sunlight; cast the property’s lone Douglas fir as sort of an iconic marker, much like a lighthouse; and accentuate the nearest body of water — Puget Sound.
It took one year for lead golf-course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and associates Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi to transform an abandoned sand-and-gravel pit into one of the most stunning 18-hole championship courses in America.
Jones, who has designed 230 courses worldwide, will tell you Chambers Bay is a links layout in the purest form, similar to the ancestral courses that have been hanging around hundreds of years in the United Kingdom.
Not many are. Of the 30,000 golf courses in the world, less than 1 percent really even fit the general mold — a coastline layout with few trees affected by wind. That would include approximately 40 courses in the United States.
Generally, that would include renowned courses such as Pebble Beach Golf Links, The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hills Golf Course in California, and Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
But if you go by the scientific definition — naturally-configured, infertile sand-based golfing grounds with dune-like terrain that links the salty sea to arable land — the list shortens dramatically.
George Peper and Malcolm Campbell, respected golf-architecture journalists, penned a book called “True Links” that attempts to separate pure links courses around the world from the pretenders.
By their count, only 246 links courses exist — with 210 of them located in the British Isles.
Of the five in North America, three are located on the same site at Bandon Dunes, along the Pacific Ocean in southwest Oregon.
“I have been lucky to build a couple of them (in America) by the strictest definition,” said Tom Doak, who designed Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald Golf Links at the four-course resort. “I lived in Scotland and England for a year, so I have an idea.”
Chambers Bay did not make the “True Links” list. So where then does the University Place golfing gem fit into the realm?
“Purists would say links golf is on links land — and this would not qualify as links land,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis, the man largely responsible for bringing the upcoming U.S. Open to Chambers Bay. “This I would say is links-like. It is not a true links golf course.”
Blasi, who has since broken away to start his own course-design firm, understands all the reasons Chambers Bay does not meet every true links-golf requirement. For starters, the holes were made through man-moved earth, and not built through the natural terrain.
“For the .1 percent of people who read a bunch of books, and have a 20-point checklist — yeah, I see how it might not fit that definition,” Blasi said. “But I have no problem calling (Chambers Bay) the pure links experience. Why don’t I have a problem with it? Because what we’ve done is differentiated ourselves from the watered-down, American-ized version of links — one that allows carts.
“For 99 percent of the public, this is the pure links experience. ... It shares the same kind of experience you’d have if you went to Scotland.”
STYLE: STRIPES EARNED
Links golf relies on proper geology. And it invites a specific playing style.
Because of the ripply fairways, waist-high rough, waste areas and pot bunkers — and the wind — the ideal way to play links golf is closer to the ground with lower-trajectory shots.
“Links golf, generally speaking, is about bouncing the ball into the greens,” said three-time British Open champion Jack Nicklaus, who has a record 18 professional majors total. “If that is the case, then you have to figure out how to do that. You have to determine what the conditions will allow you to do.”
So why is it a brand of golf so difficult for many to embrace?
It’s primarily because of the uncontrollable, unlucky bounce.
Tom Watson is widely considered the best links golfer of all-time. He won five British Open titles playing head-to-head against Nicklaus and some of the best golfers of the generation.
But it took Watson four years — even after capturing two British Open championships — to accept links-golf fate.
Watson has long told the story about playing at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1979 when Seve Ballesteros won. He wasn’t playing particularly well. And he was rather demonstrative about his distaste for all the bad breaks that come with links golf.
“I was on my pity pot,” Watson told reporters at a recent British Open.
Something changed his perspective, and it was how the 17th hole, a par 5, played on consecutive days. On Thursday, he hit driver, 3-wood and 5-iron into the green. The next day, after the wind switched dramatically, he hit driver and 9-iron in reaching the green in two shots.
“I said, ‘A-ha, this is it,’ ” Watson said. “Sometimes you get it — sometimes you get the breaks — and sometimes you don’t. That’s when I had a change of mind, right then and there.”
Much of American golf, especially on the PGA Tour, is held on parkland courses where you find plush conditions — perfectly-mowed fairways, dense rough and sand bunkers. They are also usually tree-outlined.
For 18 holes, the type of game required is all-carry target golf.
“We’re comfortable with that because it is in our control,” said PGA Tour golfer Ryan Moore, who grew up in Puyallup. “A lot of what we do is play through the air. If you hit the right shot, put the right spin on it and do everything right, it generally will end up where it should end up.”
On bouncy, fast-and-firm layouts seen on the British Open rota, or this week for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the golf ball will do crazy things — and you just have to accept it.
“You can hit a great bump and run, and it kind of hits something the wrong way, and gets going the wrong direction — you hit a good golf shot — and it ends up 50 feet away from the hole,” Moore said. “You just have to deal with it and move on, but that is hard for us when that is just not the type of golf we play all the time. The type of golf we play is a lot more in our control.
“What I’ve learned is that you have to play with what the course gives you instead of forcing your hand — you trying to do what you want to do. It is more figuring out what the course will allow you to do, and kind of going along with that.”
SHOTS: BUMP, RUN ... AND RIDE
Take stock of all the links golf-specific shots you’ll see this week at Chambers Bay:
Knockdown drivers and “stinger” 3-woods off the tee; running irons from the fairway; putts from 75 yards out; and 5-wood or hybrid run-out chip shots from around the green.
“A big key is how many level lies are you going to get out there? Basically, it is zero, so you are going to have to adapt to downhill, uphill and sidehill lies,” said renowned Florida-based swing instructor Brian Mogg, a 1979 Lakes High School graduate who also runs a golf academy out of Chambers Bay.
“This U.S. Open is not going to be like the Masters where you’ll have a pre-plan on how to get up and down. Here, you’ll have so many alternatives on how to get the job done.”
And by gauging the chatter from professionals who have come in and seen Chambers Bay already, including Tiger Woods, it is easy to see there is no one systematic way to attack this course.
Woods thinks it will require a healthy mixture of traditional British Open- and U.S. Open-type games.
“I was practicing 40-, 50-yard putts. because that’s some of the shots that we’re going to have to hit out there,” Woods said. “You can run the ball up on every hole ... but some of the holes you can’t because they’re too long, or too steep.”
Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion at Bethpage Black, said he can see a situation where a golfer adheres strictly to the “ground game” of British Opens, because “this will be like a British Open, with the exception of pot bunkers.”
“It will be a lot of long putts from off the greens and off,” Glover said. “There will be a lot of bump-and-runs, a lot of chip-and-runs, and a lot of low shots running up onto the greens, or from around the greens.
“There are a handful of holes you have to carry everything. For the most part, you can bounce it into every green.”
Jordan Spieth, the reigning Masters champion who played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, mentioned specific scenarios — and shots — he will have to monitor on the green complexes.
“It’s going to be different short-game shots,” Spieth said. “You need to learn whether you’re going to putt it off those slopes. It’s going to be really tight and kind of dry ... so you’re going to need to practice flying some ridges with spin, if you have a hybrid shot. I need a shot I can trust from the runoff areas. The greens are massive, so controlling your speed on these longer putts (is critical), because you’re not going to be able to feed it into a lot of these pins.”
Because this is a style of golf, and on a course more frequently seen in the United Kingdom than the United States, conventional wisdom would seem to give the nod to a European golfer winning the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay over an American.
Encouraging, though, is the fact that in a history of the British Open being dominated by Scottish, England and Irish champions, 12 of the past 20 winners have been Americans.
“It’s like when the American guys when they turn up, they go, ‘(Links golf) is so different from what we are used to, and what we’ve grown up with.’ They do embrace it, and they fall in love with it,” England’s Paul Casey said. “That is why you’ve seen a lot of success from American golfers over there. Maybe we can learn from that.”