Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: From here and now, Chambers Bay investment looks pretty good

If you can judge an event by the number of polo shirts, the amount of sand left in one’s shoes, or the number of eager spectators lining up in a merchandise tent waiting to hand over their money, the 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay has been an unquestionable success.

Somewhere, John Ladenburg smiles.

It was hard not to feel as though you were witnessing something special Thursday when the tournament commenced at long last, after three days of practice rounds and seven years of waiting.

There was Phil Mickelson, tipping his cap to the adoring fans who came from far and wide in hopes of watching him finally win the U.S. Open.

There was Ryan Moore, the pride of Puyallup, playing the first major in Pacific Northwest history in his own backyard.

There was Tiger Woods, and the swarm of TV cameras following his every swing.

There were the 30,000-plus fans on hand every day to witness it all.

If there’s an event in the recent history of Pierce County that’s been more hyped than this year’s U.S. Open, I can’t think of one.

Perhaps most impressive: The tournament seems to be living up to the billing.

“I don’t believe it is possible to overvalue how important this event and this investment will be to our county and region,” Pierce County councilman Rick Talbert told me.

It’s a common sentiment. Here we are, on our second glass of top-shelf champagne, in the middle of the roaring party. The eyes of the world are upon us, and the warmth of the lights feel spectacular. The attention affirms what we’ve felt about our home all along — that we live in a world-class location that much of the world has yet to discover.

On Sunday, barring a tie, a champion will be crowned. If history serves, the victorious golfer will kiss the giant U.S. Open trophy before lifting it to the sky in triumph.

Then Monday will come, the TV trucks will leave, and we’ll start answering the big question: Was it worth it?

By “it,” of course, I mean the millions that went into building a championship-caliber, county-owned golf course where a dug-out gravel mine once stood. While former Pierce County Executive Ladenburg — the single-minded visionary credited with making Chambers Bay a reality — has spent the last week or more on a public victory tour, the scoffs and charged political debates over “Ladenburg Links” aren’t far enough in the past to be completely forgotten.

“Absolutely, it was worth it,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy tells me without hesitation, referring to the financial benefits and the civic pride having the U.S. Open in our backyard has stoked.

“We’re feeling pretty good about it.”

If projections of a $140 million boost to the regional economy prove accurate, it’ll be hard not to feel good about the course. If hordes of out-of-town golfers now put playing Chambers Bay on their bucket lists, as some national commenters are suggesting, or this is the first of many major tournaments at the course, the project will truly be the gift that keeps on giving.

“I think the investment and risk will be repaid this week. And the future holds tremendous returns on the citizens’ and the ratepayers’ investment,” Talbert said.

Talbert, however, wasn’t on the Pierce County Council when the votes were being taken on Chambers Bay. Steilacoom Republican Dick Muri, who represented Pierce County’s District 6 from 2003 to 2012, was. These days, Muri is a freshman state representative for the 28th District, representing, among other places, University Place and Chambers Bay.

While Muri wasn’t the only local lawmaker to raise legitimate questions about how the county would pay for Chambers Bay, he was the only council member to vote against spending sewer money for amenities like an entry road and other infrastructure for the golf course. His objections were largely ideological: He would have preferred the project be a public-private partnership.

Muri certainly wasn’t alone in the early years as Chambers Bay failed to generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

More recently, however, Muri tells me he’s spent the past three months, binoculars and beer in hand, watching U.S. Open facilities being built at Chambers Bay from his daughter’s Steilacoom balcony.

The U.S. Open excitement, it seems, is contagious. Muri says he loves the park, loves the course, and loves the economic benefit we’re seeing this week.

In the end, he thinks Chambers Bay will present a “net positive” for the region.

With one qualifier: “I just want us to really acknowledge and thank the people on sewer for helping build this golf course,” he tells me.

“Let’s remember, nothing came free.”

Nothing of value ever does.

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