In its first year, Pierce County’s Chambers Bay Golf Course earned smashing reviews as it ascended to the top ranks of the golf world. One writer called it “America’s next great golf course.” Another said it’s “golf’s latest prodigy.” A third praised the waterfront views that offer “a sense of entrance that few golf courses anywhere can match.”
And that’s just in the last few weeks.
Throw in a passel of awards and the biggest prize of all – the 2015 U.S. Open – and it’s clear the county-owned course already has become the national showcase envisioned by County Executive John Ladenburg.
“We have seen Chambers Bay get an international reputation in six months,” Ladenburg said recently. “Nobody would have predicted we could have done that well.”
But not everything has gone as planned this first year.
After opening to booming business last summer, the course has struggled to make budget. Bad weather this winter and spring has meant fewer golfers than expected, and Chambers Bay has discounted its steep prices to attract business.
There’s also reason to suspect the economic impact of the U.S. Open – the course’s signature achievement – might be far less than the $122 million the county claims.
Ladenburg remains confident. He said Chambers Bay is in a better position to withstand poor weather and tough economic times than many courses. And he said it’s already having an economic impact.
County Council Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, also is optimistic. He said landing the U.S. Open so quickly has taken Chambers Bay to “unthought-of heights.”
NEARLY 32,000 ROUNDS PLAYED
Built on a former gravel mine, the $21 million golf course is part of a 932-acre waterfront property that Pierce County is converting to a major regional park.
Plans for the University Place park have long included a golf course. But it was Ladenburg’s idea to build one that would cater to affluent golfers and attract national tournaments.
Chambers Bay golfers pay a steep price. Depending on the day and the season, Pierce County residents pay up to $115 a round. Nonresidents pay up to $170.
Ladenburg’s vision generated a fair amount of controversy. Some questioned building a public course that many taxpayers can’t afford to play. And the County Council sparred with Ladenburg over funding issues.
That faded when the course opened June 23, 2007, with fanfare to match its ambition.
“I remember standing out there on opening day,” said Mark Luthman, regional director of operations for KemperSports, which runs the course for the county. “We knew it was such a special place. But it was nice to finally take the veil off.”
Since then, golfers have played nearly 32,000 rounds through May.
The course also has hosted tournaments, including the BMW Northwest Skins Charity Game, hosted by PGA member Ryan Moore. And it’s collected numerous honors. Among them: Golfweek magazine ranked Chambers Bay No. 2 on its “Best New Courses” list, and Golf Magazine named it “Best New Course of the Year.”
All of that was a prelude to February’s announcement that Chambers Bay would host the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2010 U.S. Amateur championships.
Chambers Bay will be the newest course to host the U.S. Open since 1970. It will be the first Northwest course to host the Open. And it will be just the third municipal course to host the U.S. Golf Association event.
“John’s goal and the county’s goal all the way along was to create a golf course that could host a major championship,” Luthman said. “Many other people have that goal, and it hasn’t come to fruition.”
65,000 PEOPLE A DAY?
The U.S. Open is the nation’s premiere golf championship. It drew more than 50,000 people a day to Torrey Pines Golf Club in San Diego earlier this month.
It could draw 65,000 people each day to Chambers Bay, filling hotel rooms and restaurants and bringing golfers of the caliber of Tiger Woods to the area.
Ladenburg sees the resulting publicity as money in the bank. And it’s already begun. The U.S. Open announcement generated a flurry of positive press.
Just this month The New York Times called Chambers Bay “America’s next great golf course.” And a travel writer for Golf Digest praised Tacoma, citing the Hotel Murano and restaurants El Gaucho, Sea Grill and Varsity Grill.
“Tacoma has lived in Seattle’s shadow, but in large part because of Chambers Bay – and the fanatics eager to play an Open-worthy venue – this city’s golf future has traction,” the author wrote.
“It just makes me smile,” Ladenburg said. “That’s exactly the kind of publicity we’re after.”
Ingram Drueding, marketing coordinator for the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, said Chambers Bay is a selling point for groups scouting convention facilities.
“I’m hearing more and more from groups saying they’re looking for things to do,” she said. “They’re hearing a lot about the golf course.”
Next month the course and the convention center will host 1,500 golfers for the American Amateur Championship golf tournament and golf show. Drueding said Chambers Bay is “the whole reason it came here.”
BLAME IT ON THE WEATHER
But all the publicity hasn’t helped Chambers Bay meet budget so far in 2008.
Losing money in the off-season is nothing new to golf courses in the rainy Northwest. And Chambers Bay budgeted to lose nearly $320,000 through April. The idea is to make up for it during busy summer months.
But the course lost about $52,000 more than expected through April, and is tapping reserves to cover the losses. The bigger losses are due in part to some higher-than-expected expenses for maintenance and food and beverages.
But a lack of golfers is the main culprit. Since September, the number of golf rounds played has been below budget every month except February, when news of the U.S. Open broke. Through May, the course saw 716 fewer rounds of golf played than budgeted so far in 2008.
Tony Tipton, the county’s project manager for Chambers Bay, attributed the problem to bad weather this winter and spring.
“This certainly hasn’t been a poster-child winter here,” he said.
Chambers Bay has been running special discounts, such as “sunset” rates for rounds played after 3:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays in June. Tipton said the specials are in part an effort to attract golfers lost to bad weather. They also give the course a chance to experiment with rates and see how golfers respond.
May’s financial report isn’t finished, but rounds were below budget again last month. And the first part of June was unseasonably cool and wet.
But there’s good news, too. Food and beverage sales – driven by local residents as much as golfers – have generated twice as much revenue as expected in 2008. And the county has been able to keep its pledge to pay the debt on Chambers Bay with golf course revenue.
Because the course is new, Tipton said “an awful lot of estimating” went into this first year’s budget. He said the course is aggressively managing its budget to stay within its means.
“We’re going to come pretty darn close to being on budget,” he said.
Because Chambers Bay charges far more than a typical course, Ladenburg said it needs fewer rounds to break even. He’s confident the course will finish 2008 in the black.
THE U.S. OPEN IMPACT
He’s also convinced the U.S. Open will be a windfall for the region.
In May he released estimates showing the tournament would generate $122 million in direct visitor spending and $17 million in tax revenue.
But there’s reason to doubt those figures.
For example, the county estimates visitors will spend $37.6 million on lodging. That’s based on the assumption that the Open will fill 25,000 hotel rooms in Pierce and King counties for seven nights in June 2015.
But the estimate assumes none of those hotel rooms would be filled without the tournament. In fact, for the last two years, Pierce County’s June hotel occupancy rate has been more than 81 percent.
So while the tournament might indeed fill 25,000 rooms, it seems safe to assume most would have been filled anyway.
Brad Humphreys, an economist at the University of Alberta who’s studied the impact of sports events, said that’s a common flaw of economic impact studies.
“They just don’t recognize the fact that tourists come and hotel rooms are sold and rental cars are rented even without the ‘mega event,’” Humphreys said.
An accurate study would try to account for only new spending generated by an event, he said. But that’s hard to do.
“Don’t get me wrong. There will be some economic impact from hosting the Open,” he said. ”But $121 million would seem to be a stretch.”
Ladenburg said it’s a fair point, but not an important one.
“To me, it’s a little bit irrelevant, considering the whole course only cost $20 million,” he said. “Even if (the estimate is) off by a factor of five, you’re in the black.”
Denise Dyer, the county’s economic development manager, prepared the estimates. She said some of the regular hotel business displaced by the U.S. Open will be rescheduled, so the Open isn’t just displacing one tourist’s dollars for another. And she said the championship will attract a different – perhaps more affluent – crowd that otherwise wouldn’t have come to Pierce County.
HARDLY AN ORDINARY MUNI
On the shuttle that carries golfers from the Chambers Bay clubhouse to the course, there’s a map that shows where many golfers have come from. Scores of pins are scattered across the far reaches of the globe.
They’ve come from Peru and Saudi Arabia, Laos and Zimbabwe. They’ve come from Europe and Australia. And they’ve come from across the United States and Canada.
The map underscores a point Ladenburg has made repeatedly: Chambers Bay is no ordinary municipal golf course. It caters to affluent golfers willing to travel and pay top dollar to play a championship-caliber course.
Through May, nearly half the people who played Chambers Bay in 2008 were from outside Pierce County. And that’s not counting group outings, in which the golfers aren’t easily identified as residents or nonresidents.
Still, the course’s success might hinge more on golfers such as Tim Clark of Poulsbo than on jet-setters from around the world.
On an overcast Thursday morning earlier this month, Clark and three friends took a beer break while playing Chambers Bay. It was their second outing at the course.
“I think it’s one you might play once or twice a year if you had guests coming in from out of town,” Clark said.
That’s the kind of infrequent but regular golfer that Chambers Bay is counting on. It might be several years before Pierce County learns if there are enough of them to make the course successful.
Lee, the County Council chairman, isn’t worried.
“We’re behind the eight-ball a little bit” this year, he said. “But I think that’s expected. As weather gets better it will improve.
“If we can pull it off this year, we get beyond the honeymoon phase, it looks like blue sky going forward,” Lee said.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
Golf isn’t the only thing happening at Pierce County’s 932-acre Chambers Creek Properties in University Place. Here’s a look at some future amenities at the site:
Beach access: On July 29 the county will break ground on a pedestrian overpass over the BNSF Railway tracks. The bridge – expected to open by early 2010 – will provide access to two miles of Puget Sound beach.
Meadows: On Aug. 9 the Chambers Creek Foundation will host a gala fundraiser to mark the opening of the park’s Central Meadow and North Meadow. The event will feature a performance by folk singer Judy Collins and the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra. The concert will be held on the Central Meadow. Tickets are $44 to $85. Call 253-591-5894 for event details.
The meadows will open to the public Aug. 10. The Central Meadow covers about 23 acres of open space, including 11 acres of lawn. The North Meadow covers about 6 acres, including 3 acres of lawn.
Environmental Education Center: The Aug. 9 fundraiser will benefit a planned environmental education center at the site. A timetable for development and the exact nature of the center haven’t been determined.
Off-leash dog park: A temporary off-leash dog park will open when the pedestrian overpass opens in 2010. Plans for a permanent dog park are in the works.
Restaurants: Chambers Bay Golf Course’s temporary clubhouse already features a restaurant. The course plans to build a permanent clubhouse, complete with one or more restaurants, plus on-site lodging. Tentative completion: 2010.
June 23 2007
Chambers Bay opens in University Place.
July 25 2007
Beanie Babies inventor Ty Warner visits to gather ideas for his own course in California.
Oct. 9 2007
PGA Tour golfers Ryan Moore, Michael Putnam, Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley host the first BMW Northwest Skins Charity Game.
Oct. 15 2007
Golfweek magazine ranks Chambers Bay No. 2 on its "Best New Courses" list.
Oct. 21-22 2007
Chambers Bay hosts the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge.
Golf Magazine names Chambers Bay "Best New Course of the Year."
Feb. 7 2008
The United States Golf Association announces that Chambers Bay will host the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship.
April 14-15 2008
The course hosts the men's West Coast Conference golf championship.
April 29-30 2008
An ax-wielding vandal attacks the course's iconic fir tree.
June 3 2008
The Pierce County Council approves contracts to host the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur championships.
Bad weather and unexpectedly high expenses have put a dent in Chambers Bay Golf Course's bottom line so far. Booming food and beverage sales have helped cover the shortfall. Here's a look at the course's 2008 finances to date:
Revenue and expenses (through April) Revenue source Actual Budgeted Difference Course and grounds $617,827 $789,825 ($171,998) Golf shop merchandise $136,057 $140,712 ($4,655) Food and beverage $340,223 $168,177 $172,046 Total revenue $1,094,107 $1,098,714 ($4,067) Total expenses $1,465,717 $1,418,166 $47,551 Income/(loss) ($371,610) ($319,452) ($52,158)
ON THE COURSE (through May)Rounds played 12,421Rounds budgeted 13,137Difference (716)
WHO’S PLAYING (through May)Pierce County resident 26%Nonresident 47%Unknown 27%
The course 18-hole Scottish links-style course on Puget Sound in University Place
Greens fees Vary by day and season. Pierce County residents pay up to $115 a round; nonresidents pay up to $170 a round. This month, there’s a $69 “sunset rate” for rounds begun after 3:30 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays.
To schedule a tee time www.chambersbaygolf.com