As we finished our round at Chambers Bay in late April, I found myself face down in the fairway fescue eating my words.
As the U.S. Open approached I was mystified by all the chatter about how hard it will be for players and fans to walk the course.
“It’s going to favor the younger golfers,” Fox sportscaster Joe Buck said.
“It’s more of a hike than a walk,” Chambers Bay general manager Matt Allen said.
How hard could it really be, I thought. If you can hit the ball straight, a round-trip at Chambers Bay is 6 1/2 miles with 1,000 vertical feet of climbing.
On the 1-to-5 scale The Mountaineers outdoor education organization uses to rate hike difficulties, it would most likely score a 3. “Moderate: A good workout, but no real problems.”
So, I decided to run a little experiment. I rounded up playing partners with various fitness levels and headed to Chambers Bay to see what kind of toll the course would take.
My foursome: Stacia Glenn, 33, the undisputed fittest reporter at The News Tribune and an avid outdoor athlete who’s climbed multiple 20,000-foot peaks. Scott Oberstaller, 61, a News Tribune copy editor who describes himself as being “in golf shape.” And Trevor Pettingill, 38, owner of Elite Physical Therapy and participant in the 2004 Olympic Trials for the marathon.
I’d serve as the guy in the middle. The one in decent shape, but with a sketchy back and knees.
Oberstaller and Pettingill golf regularly. Oberstaller usually expects to break 90. Pettingill is happy to break 100. Glenn and I don’t play. I hadn’t played in at least two years. This was Glenn’s first round.
But golf prowess was beside the point. I wanted to know how they’d feel after the round. Three of us carried our bags. Oberstaller used a push cart.
We weren’t particularly fast, but we weren’t slow, either. We finished our round in 4 hours, 40 minutes, right at the pace Allen likes to see golfers play the course.
Not bad, I thought, considering some of us weren’t exactly hitting the ball straight. I ran a GPS-tracking app during my round and found I chased my ball 8 miles around the 6 1/2-mile course.
The course undulates with plenty of uphill to test your fitness and downhill to test your knees. The walk from the third green to the fourth tee is enough of a climb that course marshals offered to shuttle us in a golf cart. We declined.
“If you’re not in good shape, that’s going to exhaust you. That’s a pretty good climb,” Pettingill said.
He and Glenn weren’t even breathing heavy on the hill. Oberstaller was, but it didn’t affect his game.
In fact, moments later Oberstaller scrambled up a dune and was breathing heavily as he examined a terrible lie. He calmed his breathing then lofted the ball onto the green to set up a par putt. He’d do this on several occasions.
Oberstaller wasn’t particularly happy with the 94 he shot, but it was the best score in our group, 11 strokes ahead of Pettingill. I shot 120. Glenn didn’t keep score.
The course affected us each differently.
For Glenn, it was little more than a warmup. That evening she went rock climbing near North Bend, followed by a trail run up Rattlesnake Ridge.
Pettingill, who usually limits his rounds to nine holes in the interest of time, worked a full shift that afternoon. He was surprised the next morning to find he had a sore hip flexor.
Oberstaller said he was tired that evening but otherwise felt fine.
I, on the other hand, was face down on the fairway by the final hole. The combination of the uneven weight of my golf bag draped over my right shoulder and swinging clubs for the first time in two years had aggravated my surgically repaired back.
I dropped to the fairway to do a press up (think cobra pose in yoga), an exercise Pettingill recommended for relieving the pain. I was so stiff, Pettingill placed his foot on my lower back so my form would be correct. (It was about this time PGA pro Brad Faxon started making his way up the fairway. As he passed, he gave me an inquisitive look.)
The pain relented enough for me to go on a short bike ride that evening, but it wasn’t completely gone for a few days.
I was surprised to be taken down by the pretty course and gentle game. Suddenly, the idea of doing this every day for a week — even just walking the course as a spectator — seemed a little harder than I expected.
Pettingill wasn’t surprised, however. When it comes to handling the course, what our bodies are used to doing is as much a factor as our fitness levels, he said.
So it make sense that Glenn wouldn’t have problems. She spends much of her spare time hiking with a heavy pack for long distances and over hilly terrain. And it makes sense that Pettingill, playing twice as many holes as he’s accustomed to, had a sore hip flexor.
And while Oberstaller may have been tired because he’s only in golf shape, it turns out that when you’re playing golf, that’s good enough.
Pettingill said he expects the course to affect people in a variety of ways during the U.S. Open, too.
“I don’t think it will be a problem for the pro golfers because this is what they do,” Pettingill said. “Fans not used to walking might feel a little challenged.”