John McGrath

The U.S. Open experience at Chambers Bay feels like a golf tournament — and that’s a good thing

Seven and a half years after the USGA designated Chambers Bay as home for its 2015 national championship, the U.S. Open came to the Pacific Northwest for the first time Thursday.

Aside from locomotives pulling freight cars, and a sailboat or two bobbing in the distance, and the concrete remnants of a gravel mill flanking a kind of lunar terrain that recalled another time golf was played on the moon — the first round of the Open was not much different from the first round of any major golf tournament.

A handful of players finished at least three strokes under par. They had fun. A couple of handful of other players finished at least eight strokes over par. They didn’t have as much fun.

But Chambers Bay’s unconventional features — proponents of the course call them quirks, critics call them gimmicks — did not turn the U.S. Open into the golf-as-amusement-park-thrill ride some feared.

University Place resident Michael Putnam was awarded first-shot honors and responded in the tradition of favorite sons placed under the brightest of lights.

“Oh, I was so nervous,” Putnam said. His early case of jitters, rather than the USGA setting up the course so it could serve as a Fox reality TV show, was responsible for the championship’s first bogey.

Cody Gribble, a University of Texas product who teed off with the third group at 7:22 a.m., recorded a birdie on No. 1, thus becoming the first name dressed in red. Prior to Thursday, Gribble had considered the round he once played with his father, grandfather and former president George W. Bush as his most memorable golf experience.

Not anymore. Gribble finished with a 2-under par 68. When the long day finally ended at Chambers Bay, Gribble was joined on the leaderboard by such low-profile names as Brian Campbell (an amateur from the University of Illinois), Francesco Molinari (a PGA Europe veteran from Turin, Italy) and Joost Luiten, representing the Netherlands.

As Gribble, Campbell, Molinari and Luiten were introducing themselves, a special talent on the cusp of superstardom, Dustin Johnson, came within reach of a penultimate-hole eagle that might have enabled him to break the U.S. Open record for lowest round. (Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Vijay Singh and Johnny Miller share it at 63.)

But Johnson’s errant eagle chip forced him to save par with a clutch putt, and his flawless scorecard finally showed bogey on No. 9, the finishing hole for those who teed off at No. 10.

Some players — Great Britain’s Ian Poulter, most notably — wondered whether Chambers Bay would be embraced by golfers not known for bringing a spirit of adventure into a major tournament.

Johnson wasn’t one of them.

“From a handful of people, I heard they liked it,” Johnson said after scoring a 5-under 65, worth a share of first place with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. “From maybe even more of a handful of others, they didn’t like it. So I didn’t know what to think, because I heard kind of both sides of it.”

Johnson’s thoughts on Chambers Bay after the first round?

“I really liked it. It’s definitely an interesting golf course.”

Matt Kuchar, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour and in the hunt at Chambers — he’s at 3-under —also likes the course because “everybody likes coming to a new venue. Veterans don’t have any advantage over rookies here. We’re all playing a brand-new course. We’ve all got the same learning curve to figure it out.”

The learning curve applies to spectators, too. Those who’d planned on following a particular group soon realized the logistical obstacles that lurk from hole to hole.

Lines for the grandstands at No. 9 and No. 18 were reminiscent of Thanksgiving Eve at Sea-Tac Airport. Less obvious viewing options required creativity and legwork.

“St. Andrews is not the best spectator course, and this one is a little bit of a tricky one, as well,” Stenson said. “I think you want to walk a few holes and then find a good spot in the grandstand. It’s definitely a place to bring some equipment so you can see from afar, that’s for sure.”

Stenson was talking about binoculars. Don’t leave home without them.

Then again, if you really want to see what’s going on — all that’s going on — don’t leave home, period.

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