Four months after Chambers Bay was christened, the golf course in University Place took a baby step toward realizing the grandest ambitions of its creators Tuesday. It opened its gates to spectators.
Fans paid $20 to watch a charity skins game featuring Ryan Moore and fellow PGA Tour players Michael Putnam, Aaron Baddeley and Bubba Watson.
Baddeley “won,” Watson delivered on his reputation as the Tour’s most explosive driver, and Moore and Putnam, the locals, had so much fun it was easy to forget they were playing the same game that compels the rest of us (well, some of us) to respond to a wayward chip shot with the volcanic profanity of Al Pacino dialing a wrong number.
Moore’s smile afterward was telling. The charity skins game was his brainchild, and you could understand his “what-if-I-plan-a-party-and-nobody-shows-up?” trepidation: The party was scheduled for 9 on a Tuesday morning, in October, with golf off the radar during the busiest sports season of the year.
His worst-case fears were not realized, thanks in part to the spectacular venue on the shore of Puget Sound. Which brings us to a follow-up question:
What is Chambers Bay’s feasibility as a major-tournament site?
Only daydream believers can envision a midweek charity exhibition evolving into, say, the 2020 U.S. Open. Then again, only daydream believers envisioned how an abandoned gravel mine, adjacent to a railroad track, would become a Puget Sound destination point.
First things first: The basic details went swimmingly. Shuttles to parking lots at a nearby cemetery were punctual, and vantage points were plentiful, especially for those willing to negotiate sandy slopes affording panoramic views.
As Wrigley Field is distinguished by baseball fans looking on from neighborhood rooftops, Chambers Bay someday might be identified with golf fans looking on from hilltops.
“Something we worked on during the whole process,” said Mark Luthman, regional director for Kemper Sports, “was making sure this had a lot of benefits of the ‘stadium’ golf course, where fans can stand and watch play on two, three or four holes from one spot.”
And though the crowd estimated at 1,200 was a mere fraction of what a big-time event would draw, the skins game offered a glimpse of the distant future.
“You can definitely see it,” Moore said of Chambers Bay as a major-tournament site. “It has the size you need, the space you need, the character you need and the toughness you need. It’s got everything that makes a championship golf course.”
Most of all, it’s got the uniqueness you need. When the 1998 PGA Championship was contested at Sahalee, fans watching on TV were given no clue of the region’s bountiful views of mountains and water. All they saw were trees. Beautiful trees, heavenly trees, but on a golf telecast, when you get down to it, trees are trees.
If Chambers Bay ever is home to a tournament broadcast on TV, it will scream of Puget Sound. And then some.
“Driving down, when I first saw the layout I thought I was in Scotland or Ireland,” said Baddeley, an Australian with extensive international experience. “The color of the course, the setting, being around the water … And the overcast day was perfect. I think it’s a phenomenal golf course.”
But is it worthy of staging a competition to determine the best of the best? While casual players are challenged by the narrow fairways flanked by bunkers the size of Montana, pros can thread the needle. Facing no water hazards and only one tree, the skins foursome rarely encountered the kind of frustration that’s a hallmark of any USGA test.
“It just needs time,” Moore said. “Grass plays completely different once it matures for a few years. The course is in great shape and it played really well for as young as it is. But give it a couple more years and it’s gonna be that much better. That will be the time people start looking at it and get really interested.”
The slow greens inspired the day’s most unusual shot, when Baddeley decided to forsake a routine putt on No. 12 for a chip-and-roll. It didn’t work, but you had to admire the display of Aussie ingenuity.
The day’s best moment? Strictly personal here: On the 15th green – the lonesome tree hole – the solemn concentration-zone mood of the golfers was broken up by a freight train that rolled by them, not more than 50 yards away.
“Similar to Troon,” said Baddeley, referring to the British Open site flanked by a railroad track.
Royal Troon opened in 1878, which makes it 129 years older than the course that opened in June.
The grass will grow, the kinks will be worked out. But for anybody watching golf atop a hill Tuesday, as birds chirped and the occasional freight train whirred by, the notion of Chambers Bay holding a major tournament was inevitable.
All you needed was 2020 vision.
John McGrath: 253-597-8742, ext. 6154