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U.S. Open here? It took a vision

Four years ago, as Pierce County prepared to pick a designer for Chambers Bay Golf Course, Robert Trent Jones II made his pitch by giving county officials golf bag tags that at the time seemed audacious.

The tags read: “2030 U.S. Open. Chambers Creek.”

Jones admitted it was wishful thinking. County Executive John Ladenburg called it optimistic.

Now they can call it something else: 15 years off.

You can’t blame anyone who was surprised by Friday’s United States Golf Association announcement that Chambers Bay will host the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship.

Chambers Bay opened just last June, and it’s been 38 years since the Open was played on a relatively new course. It’s never been held in the Pacific Northwest. Only two other public courses have hosted the event.

But if the selection of Chambers Bay is unprecedented, it’s also no accident.

Before it was built, before it even had a name, Chambers Bay Golf Course had a purpose: to land national tournaments such as the U.S. Open.

Many credit Ladenburg with that vision. But years of work by many people led to Friday’s announcement. And the county executive found an eager partner when Jones and his team gave those tags to county officials.

“All of us looked at each other and we said, ‘These guys get it,’” Ladenburg said.

GOING OUT ON A LIMB

The golf course is the centerpiece of Pierce County’s 932-acre Chambers Creek Properties in University Place. The property, once home to a gravel mine, overlooks Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.

A golf course had been planned there as far back as 1997, when the county developed a master plan for the property. But the golf course envisioned then was nothing special. And the original plan called for developing the property over 50 years.

Ladenburg changed that.

The county executive proposed a top-flight course that would generate enough revenue to pay for itself and other improvements at Chambers Creek. Now the property is expected to be fully developed in just 10 years.

The County Council endorsed his vision, and construction of the course began in 2005.

But things didn’t go smoothly.

The council questioned the golf course funding. Pierce County borrowed $20.7 million to build the course and pledged golf course, sewer and general fund revenue to repay the debt. So far, golf course revenue has covered the debt.

Others – including many taxpayers – questioned the wisdom of public funding for a golf course that many people can’t afford to play. On summer weekends county residents this year will pay $114 for a round at Chambers Bay. Others will pay $171.

County Council Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, said endorsing a high-end course wasn’t easy.

“I was out on a limb,” Lee said. “I caught a lot of flak for it.”

Ladenburg took much of the heat. But he wasn’t deterred.

“I’m not building a course for every municipal golfer in the area,” Ladenburg said last week. “They couldn’t grasp that.”

‘LET’S NOT COMPROMISE’

One who did grasp it was Jones.

In February 2004, the acclaimed golf course designer was one of five finalists for the job of designing Chambers Bay.

Ladenburg challenged the finalists: “Do you have the courage to build the perfect golf course?” And he made it clear that money wouldn’t be an obstacle.

“I remember telling the group, ‘Fifty years from now, no one will say Ladenburg should have saved a million bucks here and there,’” the executive said.

Jones said he was making the same point when he distributed the bag tags predicting the U.S. Open in 2030.

“I think we’re trying to say to the selection committee, ‘This site is so good let’s not compromise any golf value for some economic value,’” he said Friday.

Jones and his team got the contract.

They didn’t work alone. Before the course was even designed, the county consulted the USGA. Mike Davis, the organization’s senior director of rules and competitions, visited before and during construction. He liked what he saw.

The first time Davis toured the site with Jones, “He turned to me and he said, ‘Bobby, don’t screw this up,’” Jones recalled.

“I probably did (say that) because I was so overwhelmed with how great a site it was,” Davis said recently.

Jones and his staff quizzed Davis during his visits. They traveled to U.S. Opens to see how media and hospitality tents were set up. They consulted some in the golf media.

One major change: a 27-hole design was scrapped in favor of an 18-hole layout to better accommodate the tens of thousands of people who attend the U.S. Open. Jones said the movement and views of mass crowds were factors in the course design.

Jones’ team designed a Scottish links-style course that takes full advantage of the sandy terrain and waterfront views. There are no water holes. There’s only one tree. And the course is planted entirely with fescue grass.

Since it opened in June, Chambers Bay has been showered with “best new course” awards.

‘WISH YOU WERE HERE’

As the USGA visits continued, the course sold itself, to a degree. But neither the county nor Jones left it at that.

Ladenburg enlisted Gov. Chris Gregoire to write a letter pledg- ing the state’s cooperation if the USGA brought tournaments to Chambers Bay. The county compiled a three-ring binder full of transportation, housing and other plans.

Last June, while it was raining at the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, Ladenburg snapped a photo of sunny Chambers Bay and e-mailed it to Davis: “Lovely day at Chambers Bay, Mike. Wish you were here.”

After the course opened last summer, Jones and his team showcased their work. When USGA officials visited Chambers Bay, Jones and his team flew – at their own expense – to meet them as they played the course.

The USGA made no promises. But last year the association urged the county to officially request consideration for hosting a major championship. In July, Ladenburg wrote a letter requesting to be considered for the U.S. Amateur tournament in 2011 and the U.S. Open in 2016, the first available Open date.

Senior USGA leaders played Chambers Bay last August. But the real break came in December, when members of the Winged Foot Golf Club in New York elected to bow out of hosting the 2015 U.S. Open.

The USGA’s Davis called Ladenburg and asked whether the county would be willing to host the 2015 Open.

“I said, ‘I’ll pick you up at the airport,’” Ladenburg said.

On Thursday, the USGA’s Championships Committee voted to award Chambers Bay the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I was ecstatic,” Jones said. “I don’t get that emotional very often. When I got that call, it was like a double eagle.”

‘PROVED AN HONEST MAN’

Ladenburg said as many as 65,000 people a day might attend the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. He said it could be the best-attended U.S. Open in history.

The USGA’s Davis said the association hasn’t determined how many tickets it will issue for the event. But he said, “It’s absolutely safe to say this will be on the bigger side” of U.S. Open attendance.

Based on past tournaments, Ladenburg expects an economic impact of at least $100 million.

Jones was among many involved who credited Ladenburg with having the vision to build a course capable of hosting the nation’s premiere championship.

“I think John has been proved an honest man, now, don’t you?” Jones said.

“It was really John’s vision to make (Chambers Bay) different,” said Council Chairman Lee. “I, for one, have always been up here holding my breath.”

Ladenburg said he “pushed hard on the political parts of it that only I could do.” But he called Chambers Bay a “joint vision.”

He credits the County Council for taking tough political votes. He credits the county staff for years of work to bring the Open to Pierce County. And he credits Jones with building the national showcase he hoped Chambers Bay would become.

“It’s one thing to be the guy who hired somebody to paint the Sistine Chapel,” Ladenburg said. “It’s another thing to paint it.”

Jones sees that meeting four years ago – with everyone’s “wishful thinking” on display – as a key moment.

“Those bag tags are going to become keepsakes,” he said. “If you don’t aim high, you don’t get there.”

David Wickert: 253-274-7341

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