With a little luck, Chambers Bay can be a top course

Head down … deep breath … relax the shoulders …

Engrossed in the fundamental details of the perfect swing, I missed the sight that enchanted my playing partners and our caddies on the par-3 15th hole at Chambers Bay last week.

Coasting in on a cross-bay flight from Fox Island, a mature bald eagle landed in the only place it could – behind the green at which I aimed, atop the only tree on this barren scrubscape of a bewitching beauty of a golf course.

Set aside, for a moment, the long list of gloomy, unanswered questions of weather and economics and politics circling Chambers Bay like hungry birds of prey.

For now, the formal opening next month of this new creation deserves the same sunny self-talk that you or I could indulge in as if we readied our tee shot on the first hole of a match against the best golfer in the world: “Hey, I’m tied for the lead with Tiger Woods!”

Chambers Bay has a chance to become the destination Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg risked political capital to create.

As of Monday afternoon, 1,780 people had reserved individual tee times and nearly 3,300 more had signed up for tournaments. More than 5,000 rounds booked in two weeks.

“Very strong,” said Mark Luthman, western regional director of operations for Kemper Sports, the company hired by Pierce County to market and manage Chambers Bay Golf Course. “The group rounds are … significantly higher than what we anticipated in this first six months of operation.”

In the fickledom of success, golf courses and celebrities have a lot in common. To achieve the extraordinary, you need a distinctive look, some luck and buzz. How else do you explain Paris Hilton?

Chambers Bay has the look. The sculpted former gravel pit with its drastic elevations and vistas and wastelands and deep ravines will, more than once, leave you asking, “Where in the world am I?”

When you play the 16th hole along the bayside BNSF railroad tracks, the caddies will tell you to beware the invisible draft whipped by a passing train. That’s distinctive.

The buzz has just started. Cybergolf.com’s editorial director gushed:

“I may have just walked what may become one of the best and most-heralded courses on the West Coast. That may be a brash statement, considering us ‘Left-Coasters’ boast such acclaimed tracks as Torrey Pines, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the triumvirate of, soon-to-be-quartet of, courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in southwest Oregon.

“Yet Chambers Bay, in of all places the often image-impaired Tacoma, Wash., may join the above pantheon right out of the box when it opens in June. … It’s that good.”

Not a slam-dunk endorsement – he qualified the praise with “may” twice in the opening sentence and threw in a backhand at Tacoma’s image – but it’s a start.

Golf Course Architect, the magazine, ran three small images over a full-page, postcard-worthy photograph with a preview that begins, “Chambers Bay shoots for the stars: One of the most eagerly awaited course openings of 2007 …”

And officials from the U.S. Golf Association, organizers of one of the four best golf tournaments in the world, the U.S. Open, visited Chambers Bay during construction last fall. They’ll come back, most likely to play a round or two, later this month.

The buzz has reverberated beyond the golfing cognoscenti. At Tacoma City Hall, just as officials wound down negotiations with a private-sector suitor who wants to buy the city’s Tacoma Narrows Airport, a second suitor has entered the picture.

City Manager Eric Anderson won’t name either group. But sources say the original party has experience operating airports in another state. And the newest group of investors, from the Puget Sound region, has aviation-related experience.

The city signed a 60-day agreement to allow the latest investor group to research the airport, its financial performance and its economic potential while the city suspends any other negotiations.

What’s the golf connection?

Tacoma Narrows Airport, a lackluster performer as an economic driver if not an outright money loser some years, stands to win as the touch-down point for corporate jets bringing executive golfers to play Chambers Bay.

It evolved that way at Bandon Dunes, Ore., the only other out-of-the-way West Coast golf destination with a similar Scottish-style design.

Does the symbiosis of golf and aviation have anything to do with the interest in Tacoma’s airport?

“I think undoubtedly it does,” Anderson said. “We’ve heard about that from a number of different parties.”

Now, Chambers Bay needs some of the same luck I had on that 15th hole, dubbed Lone Fir. Undistracted by the bald eagle, I lofted a high tee shot that found the green less than 25 feet from the hole.

Sure, I three-putted. Sure, I shot 111 for the round. I had plenty of time afterward to dissect where my game went sour, find blame in playing off a rubber mat to protect the new grass and make excuses about the rust from playing once in the past year.

But for a few moments after that shot at Lone Fir, staring down a potential birdie putt, I thought, “I am Tiger Woods!”

And Chambers Bay, with luck, will become the best golf course in the world.

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785