Ladenburg’s Folly? Not according to the golf world

When we live every day surrounded by beauty, human nature suggests that over time we’ll lose perspective and appreciation for just how good we’ve got it.

Until the cultured world traveler shows up to remind us.

So when I stood Monday at the crest overlooking Chambers Bay, I strained to set aside seeing what skeptics snidely refer to as Ladenburg Links.

Instead, I tried to soak it in – the cluster of Old Steilacoom terraced up the slope from the Sound, the whitecaps streaking north in front of Fox Island, the undulating emerald hillside golf course – with the fresh eyes of Bradley Klein.

Klein travels the world as premier senior golf course rater for Golfweek magazine.

“Chambers Bay is the most carefully crafted and well-designed municipal golf course since Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in 1936,” Klein wrote in his Golfweek critique, referring to the celebrated New York layout. “The big difference is that Chambers Bay, perched on the windy shoreline of Washington’s lower Puget Sound, has a better natural setting and makes for a more exciting walk.”

Using 10 criteria, he graded the course an overall 8.5 to 9.0 on a 10-point scale.

“A stunning technical achievement,” Klein wrote, “one that appears entirely natural. Chambers Bay clearly rates among Golfweek’s Best Top 50 Modern Courses (post 1960). It is a fitting culmination to Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s design career.”

Jones must think a lot of his course, too. His 2008 promotional desk calendar includes three photos of Chambers Bay. This comes from a guy who’s designed more than 240 courses in 40 countries on six continents over three decades.

If Klein’s write-up stood alone, you might dismiss it as a mulligan – an uncharacteristically errant shot that warrants a do-over. But other outsiders have confirmed his perspective.

For example:

 • Golfweek also ranked Chambers Bay No. 2 on its “Best New Courses” list – comprised of the top 50 courses opened since 2005. (No other municipal course made the list.)

 • Golf Magazine rated Chambers Bay “Best New Course of the Year” on its list of “Top 10 New Courses You Can Play.”

 • Chambers Bay won the “daily fee” category of Golf Inc.’s “Development of the Year” contest.

 • Travel + Leisure Golf magazine chose Chambers Bay as its 2007 Course of the Year.

 • Golf.com chose Chambers Bay its Course of the Year.

Time magazine described it this way: “The wild beauty of the Chambers Bay golf course … is obvious and abundant, a gorgeous canvas of mountain, sea and sky. As you begin to walk the course, a second natural element makes its presence known: the wind. It swirls and dips and then slaps you sideways, an ‘invisible hazard,’ as the course’s architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. likes to call it, mimicking the roughness of the stubbly Van Gogh-like landscape.”

Thanks to the cut of public pavement that winds up, down and above Chambers Bay, all of us can immerse ourselves in the Chambers Bay outsiders have discovered and claim it as our own.

But let’s not forget its genesis: Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, who risked sewer ratepayers’ capital and his own political capital pushing a $20 million dream many didn’t share and couldn’t picture.

Chambers Bay “could have gone down in history as Ladenburg’s Folly, in honor of the bureaucrat who championed the project,” Travel + Leisure reported in its best-course write-up.

“A golfer himself, Ladenburg decided that building a truly exceptional course on this site had the potential ‘to make Mount Rainier the second-most popular tourist destination in Pierce County.’”

More popular than Mount Rainier? An overstatement. Give Ladenburg a mulligan for exuberant hyperbole.

So far, Bo Jackson, the former pro football and baseball star, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, have played Chambers Bay. Movie star Kevin Costner stopped in for a preview. Four pros played in the BMW Northwest Charity Skins Game. The Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge was played there. Total rounds played have exceeded projections. The Chambers Bay Grill has more than tripled revenue projections – thanks primarily to walkers passing by.

“It’s matched my highest expectations,” Ladenburg said Tuesday.

And yet. Despite all the accolades, Ladenburg’s original dream remains partially unfulfilled. He wants a major professional championship to play Chambers Bay.

“We ought to be able to attract the best tournaments in the world, and the best tournament that moves around is the U.S. Open,” Ladenburg said.

With an estimated direct economic impact of $100 million for the Puget Sound region.

For that to happen, Ladenburg can’t spend his last year as county executive playing golf. By June he expects to have zipped through a request for qualifications process to choose a private developer to invest in a $35 million to $40 million complex that includes a new clubhouse and restaurant; a driving range; clubhouse lodging and casitas; a practice facility; a teaching academy; and meeting space. Targeted opening: summer 2010.

For you and me, the new amphitheater and park area will open this summer. Pierce County expects to sign a contract with the Tacoma Dome to book concerts and other events into the amphitheater. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget includes money to complete the pedestrian connection over the railroad tracks to the beach in 2009.

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785


Chambers Bay by the numbers


Total revenue$3,163,500$2,255,268

Greens fees/carts$1,978,157$1,745,965


Food and beverage$830,826$266,153


* 2007 estimates; year-end calculations pending

Rounds playedForecastedPlanned

County residents5,70130%8,87353%




Other4722%0 0%