Golf

A bit of Scotland in University Place

Regal architectural projects get world-class golf-course designers to talk in seconds, and for hours. A few of them met during an off-day at the Masters in April, sipping champagne and bantering about their courses du jour.

Interactive Tour of Chamber's Bay golf course



Robert Trent Jones Jr., draftsman of 239 courses worldwide, spoke idyllically to his colleagues about No. 240 – Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, then two months away from its June 23 opening.

“This is the one,” Jones bubbled, “that has all the potential.”

You’ve watched its 21/2-year transformation from an abandoned sand and gravel pit to a Scottish links-style dunes masterpiece. You’ve watched select golfers, including PGA Tour players Ryan Moore and Michael Putnam, sample the course in recent months.

Come Saturday, you can play it yourself and decide what its purpose – and potential – really is.

Is it the five-star facility that Pierce County can be giddy over? Will it someday host a major championship, perhaps a U.S. Open?

Is its pre-introductory reputation overblown?

“We put our heart and soul into it,” said Tony Tipton, the county’s project manager for Chambers Bay. “So, it is important to get the viewpoint of what the golf world thinks of it. Did we do it right?”

We will soon find out.

A PURE LINKS LAYOUT

The project’s movers and shakers should be well-known by now: Pierce County borrowed $20.7 million to build the course on 250 acres; the Robert Trent Jones II firm, of Palo Alto, Calif., earned the bid over four other finalists to design it; Kemper Sports Management, of Northbrook, Ill., was hired to operate it; and Heritage Links, of Houston, constructed it.

Jones’ group was the only firm to recommend a links-style layout, taking advantage of the facility’s proximity to Puget Sound, its exposure to wind and the quality sand left behind in the pit to filter and lay down as topsoil for the course’s fescue grass fairways and greens.

“We had to recreate it to look like nature had done the changes,” Jones said.

Tipton researched the idea in 2004, touring other links-style course such as Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Whistling Straits in Wisconsin as models.

“We thought we were bringing something to the marketplace that was new and distinct, as well as being attractive to the corporate market,” Tipton said.

With so much acreage, county officials considered putting in 27 holes, or even two 18-hole courses on the property. They settled on one 18-hole layout, prompting the question: What should be done with rest of the space?

The answer: Build a course spacious enough to accommodate all aspects of a major tournament.

It is the subtle designs that golfers might not see while playing the course – the room around select greens for grandstands and television towers; the 40 acres, particularly on the right-side bluff of the 18th hole, for corporate, food-and-beverage and media tents; and player amenities, including enough spots for personal parking.

“If somebody wants to create a golf course to host a major, in order to have a chance, you have to do all those things,” said Jay Blasi, Jones’ lead architect on the project. “And because you do doesn’t mean you’re going to get one.”

In golf architecture, Jones said “we’re on defense” to try and design a layout that tests the skills of the world’s best, including No. 1 Tiger Woods. The course tops out at 7,585 yards (par 72 set by Chambers officials). Five par-4s are 490 yards or longer.

“It’s a legit course, a championship course,” Moore said. The touring pro from Puyallup played Chambers Bay four weeks ago.

“It’s got the length. It’s got the character. It is a matter of maturing into the championship course it can be.”

Links-style play is different from more traditional American courses, and requires “aerial” play, Jones said. This, he added, demands a player to play both high-trajectory shots and low, bump-and-run shots.

Uneven tee areas, which can be set up to give skewed views of each hole, were designed more like a “batter’s box,” Jones said, much like what old-style golf in Europe was intended to be.

“After a while of playing the built-up, Donald Trump-style, fake-waterfall type courses, it was nice to play a course that was a real golf course,” Putnam said. “It is a pure golf course.”

A MAJOR PLAYER?

The course is here. Is a major event far behind?

Officials from the United States Golf Association, which holds the U.S. Open, have visited Chambers Bay at least three times. USGA senior director of rules and competition Mike Davis, widely considered the key figure in choosing where the national championship goes, left the course impressed.

The PGA of America, which governs the PGA Championship, has not been in direct contact with Chambers Bay, but Kerry Haigh, managing director for tournaments, has seen images of it.

“It looks spectacular. It looks very exciting. Once that course opens, if the club has interest, we would certainly look to visit it,” Haigh said.

If the PGA Tour isn’t aware of Chambers Bay yet, at least the county has two promising spokesmen in Moore and Putnam to spread word of its grandeur.

The USGA held the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links championship at Gold Mountain Golf Complex near Bremerton, operated by general manager Scott Alexander. That’s when officials first surveyed Chambers Bay.

“I don’t think there’s a new golf course out there that’s a slam-dunk, major championship golf course,” Alexander said. “But talking to some of the USGA people … Chambers Bay has a legitimate shot. It’s a different caliber golf course than what we have.”

What proponents say Chambers Bay has going for it:

 •  It is located in the Northwest, a market the USGA has long stated it wants to pursue.

 •  It’s within an hour of a major metropolitan area and airport.

 •  Not only is it a public course – the USGA and PGA of America have shifted some of their focus from country clubs to public venues for their majors – but it also is one of the few credible, championship-caliber, publicly-owned facilities, like Torrey Pines in San Diego (site of the 2008 U.S. Open) and Bethpage Black in New York (host of the 2009 U.S. Open).

 •  Chambers Bay is more of a natural-looking golf course, much like the older designed courses that fit their native surroundings, which the USGA and PGA of America prefer.

“The (PGA Tour) is looking for sponsor dollars. The USGA is looking for the best venues for their championships, and the PGA of America is doing the same thing,” said Joe Wisocki IV, Chambers Bay’s general manager and director of golf. “I think this course would move up the chain, but several of those (majors) are so many years out.”

The USGA just named Pinehurst No. 2 its host for the 2014 U.S. Open, and bids for later tournaments are already being evaluated. Ditto for the PGA of America, which has committed to Whistling Straits as home of the 2015 PGA Championship.

A major tournament for Chambers Bay would be at least 10 years away.

Plus, the two leading associations have processes in place. If a course intends to host the U.S. Open, it likely first will have to settle for hosting a second-tier championship.

“The U.S. Amateur would be a starting point,” Wisocki said.

QUALITY COMPETITION

A glut of new courses, all boasting they were built for the same purpose of hosting a major, will not make Chambers Bay’s task any easier.

Everyone aspires to do what Whistling Straits did. It opened in 1998 as one of Pete Dye’s most refreshing designs. The links-style layout sits along Lake Michigan. And it had an ambitious billionaire owner in Herb Kohler.

In 2004, Whistling Straits not only hosted a PGA Championship, but it also was well on its way to garnering two more PGA Championships (2010, 2015) and the 2020 Ryder Cup.

“I think what (golf’s governing bodies) will continue to look for are interesting venues, and new venues to draw interest from the public,” said Alice Edland, a vice president for the Kohler Group who served on the Whistling Straits’ welcoming committee.

Down the road a piece is the new Erin Hills layout, voted Golf Magazine’s best new course for 2007. Before construction was completed, Erin Hills was awarded the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links championship – the first course to be named a host of a USGA event before its opening.

“We’re not corporate – we didn’t have a marketing group. There was no heavy-handed solicitation or wining and dining,” Erin Hills owner Bob Lang said. “We’re a public course that is controlled by one person. We’re open to anybody.”

Trump has loudly campaigned for a major to come to Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey. It will host both 2009 U.S. Junior Amateurs for boys and girls.

Tipton is aware of all that.

“I get the question a lot, ‘Do you really think you’re that good?’ It is difficult for me to evaluate that … but we feel we have a lot of the positives going in our favor,” Tipton said of Chambers Bay. “There are no guarantees. You do your best to present it, and the USGA or anybody else can come in and evaluate it. Honestly, we think it can stand on its own.”

The major players

Three governing bodies of golf – the United States Golf Association, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour – are responsible for placing the sport’s biggest events at courses throughout the country:

UNITED STATES GOLF ASSOCIATION

Headquarters: Far Hills, N.J.

Founded: 1894.

Philosophy: The beholder of American golf tradition, the USGA hosts 13 national tournaments, 10 of which are for amateurs. The U.S. Open is its highest-profile event, and arguably the most cherished title in golf worldwide. A fixture in the Midwest and East, the USGA has stated it wants to expand into other markets, notably the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally, a course interested in hosting a U.S. Open will first get a shot at one of the USGA’s lower-profile events (U.S. Amateur Public Links, U.S. Mid-Amateur, etc.) as a test run.

Odds of going to Chambers Bay: The USGA has already made inroads. 5-to-1

PGA OF AMERICA

Headquarters: Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Founded: 1916.

Philosophy: Created to enhance the exposure of club professionals, the PGA of America governs the PGA Championship and the biannual United States-vs.-Europe Ryder Cup. It is the largest working sports organization in the world, with more than 28,000 members. While the PGA of America has held the PGA Championship at some of the country’s cherished traditional venues, it has recently attempted to market its championships to newer courses, notably Whistling Straits and Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

Odds of going to Chambers Bay: PGA of America knows of it, but that’s it. 20-to-1

PGA TOUR

Headquarters: Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Founded: 1969.

Philosophy: When the “Tournament Players Division” split from the PGA of America in 1968, it launched the PGA Tour. Currently, the association operates the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour and the Nationwide Tour. The PGA Tour prefers its tournaments to be held on its The Players Championship-member courses, and because it is a multimillion-dollar business, it is constantly in search of corporate sponsorship for its events. The Tour’s biggest tournament is The Players Championship in Florida.

Odds of going to Chambers Bay: A long way off. 100-to-1

COURSE COMPANY

Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place has hopes of someday hosting a U.S. Open. Here are three of the newer courses that figure to be major players as well in securing a bid:

WHISTLING STRAITS

Located: Haven, Wis.

Dimensions: 7,597 yards, par-72 (built on 560 acres).

Owner: Herb Kohler. Architect: Pete Dye.

Opened: 1998.

Outlook: Around here, this venue will be known as the course that replaced up-the-road Sahalee Country Club as site of the 2010 PGA Championship. Really, this course was well on its way to big things shortly after it opened, hosting the 2004 PGA Championship. The PGA of America has staked a few of its notable events here, including the 2015 PGA Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup. Any room for the USGA? Well, Whistling Straits was a finalist for the 2005 U.S. Open (it went to Pinehurst No. 2), and will host this year’s Senior U.S. Open next month. It’s only a matter of time.

ERIN HILLS

Located: Erin, Wis.

Dimensions: 7,824 yards, par-72 (built on 580 acres).

Owner: Bob Lang. Architects: Hurzdan-Fry and Ron Whitten.

Opened: 2006.

Outlook: Wisconsin’s “other” spectacular course might become a USGA favorite, especially because of the PGA of America’s presence at Whistling Straits. On a site visit, the USGA was so impressed by this natural, links-style heartland layout, it offered Erin Hills the 2008 U.S. Women’s Public Links Championships months before construction was finished. Erin Hills is the only course to inherit a USGA championship before its opening. A sign? Chances are Erin Hills will host a U.S. Open sometime after 2013.

TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB

Located: Bedminster, N.J.

Dimensions: 7,610 yards, par-72 (built on 535 acres).

Owner: Donald Trump. Architect: Tom Fazio.

Opened: 2004.

Outlook: What The Donald wants, he’ll build – and he has publicly campaigned for a U.S. Open. He has already secured the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Junior Girls Amateur in 2009, which is a start. USGA’s headquarters is located right down the road. And USGA executive director David Fay used to be an honorary member at Trump National. Hardly an apprentice when it comes to getting in high-stakes bidding, Trump’s cavalier posturing could push Trump National to the forefront – or bite him in the posterior.

Todd Milles: 253-597-8442

todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

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