Opinion

Chambers Bay still a gem without U.S. Open

From the Editorial Board

Swedish golfer Henrik Stenson hits out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf championship at Chambers Bay in 2015. Stenson turned heads that year for his criticism of the putting surface at the University Place golf course, saying it was like playing on broccoli.
Swedish golfer Henrik Stenson hits out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf championship at Chambers Bay in 2015. Stenson turned heads that year for his criticism of the putting surface at the University Place golf course, saying it was like playing on broccoli. AP

It’s hard to believe two years have passed since Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place welcomed the prestigious U.S. Open and held the sports world transfixed. Nostalgia would be natural for any local who spent part of Father’s Day weekend watching this year’s 117th version of the Open, hosted by another first-time venue in Erin Hills, Wisconsin.

The 2015 Open was billed as the largest professional sports event ever staged in Washington. A study conducted later by local economists found a $134 million benefit to the region, including $16.8 million in tax revenue.

Then-Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy professed hope that it would be the first of many Opens at the majestic Puget Sound layout.

Those hopes have dimmed somewhat. Chambers’ Bay has been dogged by a not-ready-for-primetime reputation. Spectators who tried following groups of players in 2015 didn’t like running into roped-off dead ends. Chippy professional golfers still grouse about the unforgiving dried fescue greens, which one pro famously compared to playing on broccoli.

Hall of Famer Gary Player ran his mouth during the 2015 Open, calling it “the most unpleasant golf tournament I’ve seen in my life.” Player took a few more hacks this year; in a childish game of trash talk with golf course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr., he bawled about the “diabolic conditions of Chambers Bay.”

It also might not help that Erin Hills was generally viewed as a successful rookie host last weekend — another links-style golf course, but free from hyperbole about flowering head vegetables or devilish conditions.

For the moment anyway, the prospect that Erin Hills will win a spot in the USGA rotation seems stronger than Chambers Bay’s. Take it from Puyallup pro golfer Ryan Moore. A year ago, he told TNT golf writer Todd Milles he suspects the USGA may ultimately pick a favorite between its two newest hosts. “I have a feeling they will return to one of those venues — whichever one they like better,” Moore said.

With U.S. Open locations now set through 2026, it’s starting to look like Sound Transit light-rail trains will come to Pierce County before another men’s golf major does.

But that doesn’t mean the 10-year-old course, carved from the solid bones of an old gravel mine, is already a white elephant. For evidence to the contrary, consider:

▪ A local team was selected last fall to develop a destination golf resort featuring 190 hotel and extended stay units, conference and event space, and a restaurant run by preeminent Seattle chef Tom Douglas. The project also promises naturally blended green design and a long-awaited clubhouse surpassing 4,000 square feet.

▪ Thousands of Pierce County residents who may care little for golf continue to have their run of the 900-plus acre master-planned site. They range from dogwalkers and joggers enjoying scenic overlooks on the Soundview-Grandview Trail, to picknickers spreading blankets in Central Meadow, to young families romping around the Playground by the Sound.

This tapestry of open space is not finished. On Saturday, the non-profit Chambers Creek Foundation will celebrate its unfolding vision — and lay out some of what comes next — at a 10-year gala at the Chambers Bay Pavilion. All funds raised will be poured into additional trails, recreation projects and public access amenities.

Make no mistake: The 2015 U.S. Open helped put West Pierce on the national golf-tourism map. Its impact shouldn’t be underestimated.

Pierce County officials should strive to preserve good relations with the USGA because it will inevitably return to the Seattle-area market. The county wisely has begun replacing the vilified fescue with Northwest-friendly turf.

But even if Chambers Bay never lands another golf major, it stands as a savvy investment in public park land in a county that is sadly — even diabolically — deficient in it.

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