Golf

Putnam family lives transformation of Chambers Bay from sandbox to U.S. Open course

A young Michael Putnam hopped into the passenger seat in his father’s blue pickup. The Putnams, like a throng of their neighbors, occasionally spent part of their Saturdays driving to a nearby quarry after a pile of sand had been dumped there the previous day.

They’d shovel as much as necessary into the bed of the truck and make their way back home. Michael’s sandbox needed some freshening up.

“I just built sandcastles out of it,” Michael said. “I guess I got to know that sand.”

That quarry is now a U.S. Open golf course. That sand now fills bunkers instead of sandboxes. That boy became a U.S. Open golfer.

“He’s going to try to stay out of the sand this weekend,” added Michael’s father, Dan Putnam.

Much had to materialize to shape what is believed to be the first time in U.S. Open history that one golf family will leave such a widespread mark on a tournament so close to their front door.

Chambers Bay wasn’t even a thought when the Putnams drove to that former sand and gravel pit. University Place wasn’t a city until 1995. Michael Putnam made sandcastles, not birdies.

Older brother Joel, who said he’s caddied about 500 rounds of golf since Chambers Bay opened in 2007, will caddie this weekend for Michael, who graduated from Tacoma’s Life Christian Academy, but played golf at University Place’s Curtis High because LCA didn’t have a team.

Younger brother Andrew also is a PGA Tour professional. He missed the U.S. Open cut (Joel says by a mile, as you might expect an older brother to say), though he played the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, won by Peter Uihlein.

Andrew’s cousin, childhood friend and eventual caddie, Greg Bodine, will caddie 25-year-old Tony Finau’s first U.S. Open.

Hometown. Home course. And three members of the Putnam family to help play it.

PIT TO COURSE

Joel Putnam and Bodine sit back in the living room recliners, Dan’s in a chair near the TV, tuned to golf. They consider switching to the Seattle Mariners game because Felix Hernandez is supposed to pitch.

Michael sits at the end of the couch when his wife Kristina arrives with 4-year-old Jantzen and 2-year-old Hallie in tow.

Jantzen is decked with a U.S. Open hat and polo shirt his mom just bought him. Hallie, too, got a hat and a U.S. Open bouncy ball.

“You just spent every dollar we’ve made,” Michael deadpans.

Their new home is being constructed across Mom and Dad’s backyard, after you pass the pool on the right and basketball court on the left.

He’s qualified for three other U.S. Opens — Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005, Oakmont in 2007 and Congressional Country Club in 2011 — but this is the first he’ll be sleeping in his own bed. Michael’s in the first group that tees off at the first hole at 7 a.m. Thursday.

He remembers when the course was fenced-in private property. His parents moved to their current UP home when the now 33-year-old Michael was 12.

“So from (ages) 2 to 12, he played in that sand,” mother Karin said.

She then realized she had insinuated Michael played in sandboxes far longer than he should have.

“Well, you know, maybe not that long,” Karin says, laughing. “Maybe 2-6.”

The former sand and gravel pit was hidden behind a tree line about a mile from the Putnam’s former UP home. Few knew it existed — though Dan said he sneaked in on his motorcycle a few times as a teenager growing up in nearby Fircrest — much less that it could viably host a U.S. Open.

Dan had attended a couple of community meetings at the nearby Pierce County Environmental Services Building in UP after the idea for a course had been conceived, and he even spoke once.

He voiced his support for the creation of an 18-hole, championship-level golf course over the discussed alternative — a good 27-hole course.

“I sort of gave my peace about it, and I’m never that shy to speak,” Dan said. “But that was years ago. It was before Michael was a pro. We weren’t really a golfing family by then, we were just in the neighborhood.”

He doesn’t take any credit for influencing the decision or for what the course became. That all belongs to former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg.

“I thought his goals were fantastic,” Dan said. “But he was naive to think he could attract the U.S. Open to Chambers Bay. Maybe in 20 years.

But he did.

“I kind of chuckle to be quite honest,” Dan said. “I thought it was a great vision and I was glad they were trying to build a championship golf course here and all the amenities they had planned. But I thought there was no way.”

Coincidentally, the course opened in 2007 the same year Michael first earned his PGA Tour card. He was the first to play a preview round on the course before it opened, alongside Ken Still, the former PGA and Champions Tour standout from Fircrest; original Chambers Bay club professional Joe Wysocki IV; and Dan.

“I think I was home from being on tour, the course was opening and they knew I lived right here,” Michael said. “They figured, ‘Why not get a pro out here, measure it, laser it and see how the course really plays for championship golf?

“When they were building it, I didn’t think they’d get a U.S. Open. But the first time I played it, I could definitely tell that it was built for championship golf.”

COINCIDENCE … OR NOT?

Dan walks the 3¼-mile loop around Chambers Bay more often than not. Karin runs it.

And Michael?

“There was a period of my life for about two years where I ran,” he said. “So I ran with my mom a little bit.”

“It was really fun to watch them build a major golf course,” Dan said. “It was just really fun. But I have an engineering background, so I was just curious on all of the logistics and how they made it work.”

Walking it will be almost impossible this week with the 250,000 people expected to watch. How Dan will follow Michael during play is something he’s trying to figure out.

But just to have Michael in the field — after surviving a sectional qualifier in Ohio — with Joel caddying and nephew Greg guiding Salt Lake City’s up-and-coming Finau (who, speaking of family ties, is cousins with NBA player Jabari Parker and NFL player Haloti Ngata) at a course so close to home, it’s too many coincidences for Dan to believe it’s all coincidence.

“You can’t fathom these things,” Dan said. “It’s just the most unique story that I’m aware of entering the U.S. Open for a golf course.”

While Michael, Joel and Greg study the intricacies of every hole, 25-30 members of their family will scour about the rest of the concourse in the grandstands or along the ropes. There shouldn’t be a blade of fescue unknown to the Putnam family when the championship concludes.

Besides, Michael’s already got the sand covered.

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