Too Much Too Young?
Built alongside the beautiful Puget Sound in Washington, Chambers Bay is visually spectacular. But at only eight years old, Tony Dear finds out if this controversial public golf course is really ready to host a major championship.
John Ladenburg’s fellow council members didn’t much care for the County Executive’s (head of the county government) proposal to build a golf course on a disused sand and gravel mine adjacent to Puget Sound 10 miles south of Tacoma, Washington. The left-leaning officials thought golf an elitist sort of thing, a rich man’s sport. And anyway, the old pit, part of the 930-acre Chambers Creek property the County had purchased in 1992, had been earmarked for walking, biking and hiking trails, soccer fields and playgrounds in a 50-year-plan the County hoped would transform the scruffy and rather desolate ground into a popular and acclaimed public space. Ladenburg, a trained prosecutor with 16 brothers and sisters and who had first walked the site in late 2001, was eager for his golf course project to go ahead though, so using his persuasive personality and the considerable political clout he had built up following a clear-cut victory in the 2000 County elections, he set about earning the votes he needed.
“I had to bend some arms and make some trades,” Ladenburg remembers 14 years later. “There were seven members on the council, and all I needed was a 4-3 majority. One member wanted to build a park in his district. I didn’t think the land terribly suitable for a park, but eventually consented. So he got his park, and I got my vote.”
Still, the council’s non-golfers remained unconvinced golf was the best use of the land. “They wanted to add a clause to the contract saying that if the course wasn’t making money by the end of the fourth year I think it was, then it would be abandoned and the land sold for high-end waterfront housing,” Ladenburg says. “With that location, overlooking the Sound and McNeil, Fox, and Anderson Islands, the real estate would have been extremely lucrative. But I told the council that would be one-time money. The golf course could still be earning income 100 years from now.”
Ladenburg put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) and got a staggering 56 replies from golf course architects interested in the job. He appointed a panel of advisors made up of local land developers and golf administrators to help him decide who might be the best fit. They began the process by throwing out firms they thought lacked imagination. “Some had replied simply to let us know they wanted to be in the running,” says Ladenburg, “while others had really taken the time to put together a detailed plan for the course.”
A second round of culling removed candidates whose ideas were worthy of consideration but who made no mention of the US Open. “I had become aware of how special this course could be and had begun to think in terms of hosting a prestigious event,” says Ladenburg. “So I needed someone who shared our vision, who recognised the possibilities, and who agreed to work closely with the USGA to create a course capable of staging our national championship.”
That left five contenders – Bob Cupp, Michael Hurdzan, a team led by Phil Mickelson, local designer John Harbottle, and Robert Trent Jones Jnr who had included a routing for an 18-hole course with what Jones described as ‘18 truly great world-class holes’, as well as a plan for the 27-hole layout Ladenburg had initially indicated. Jay Blasi, Jones’ young design associate, first visited the property on December 23, 2003. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in landscape architecture, Blasi had applied to numerous architecture companies on leaving college but could only find work with a landscaping firm in Baltimore. It wasn’t long though before he got a call from Bruce Charlton, Robert Trent Jones’ Chief Design Officer and now company President, who interviewed Blasi on the phone. After meeting Jones shortly after, the 25-year-old was hired and could scarcely believe his luck when the first out-of-office job he would be involved in was to design a publicly-owned course on land right next to Puget Sound with a virtually limitless supply of sand. “I was totally blown away by the site,” he says. “It was incredible – the views, the scale of the place, the sand. I was like a kid in a candy store, running up and down the sand hills imagining what the holes might look like.”
Three weeks later, he, his boss, and Charlton met with Ladenburg for their final interview and handed him a bag tag with the words ‘Chambers Creek US Open 2030’ inscribed on the front. It was a bold move certainly, but Ladenburg liked bold and was also very keen to take advantage of Jones’ many contacts within the USGA. Though the combination of views, space, ever-lasting sand, and a similarly unrestricted budget gave Jones and his team an enviable head start, the site at Chambers Creek (that was just a working title, the name officially became Chambers Bay some time in 2004) wasn’t the easiest on which to find golf holes. Covered in piles of sand 50-100ft high, countless pockets of scruffy vegetation, and several dirty drainage ponds, the ground would need to be pushed, shaped, manipulated, and generally manhandled for holes as good as Jones had promised to emerge. “It wasn’t like Sand Hills GC,” says Blasi, referring to the superb Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed course in Nebraska where the designers had found more than 130 excellent and entirely natural holes just waiting to be seeded. “Really the only parts of the course that were already there were the dunes surrounding the 6th green, the flattish pad of the green at the 9th, and the fairway of the 12th which was an access/haul road for trucks.” Ladenburg gave Jones a year to finalise the design, instructing him to leave enough space to accommodate hospitality villages, public concessions, merchandise tents, and 65,000 fans. He made it clear he didn’t want things to be squeezed in like that had been at Merion in 2013 and so many other championship venues.
“I had read John Feinstein’s book about the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black in New York, and asked myself if they could hold a successful US Open on a public course there, why couldn’t we do it here?” says Ladenburg. “But I also knew how few courses ever got to stage the championship. There are something like 16,000 courses in America and only 50 have hosted the US Open. I knew we couldn’t compromise anywhere. I wanted a US Open here to be unique, so we decided the course would be all fescue, and walking-only despite the fact KemperSports, the company I hired to manage operations, told me our revenue could be as much as 30% higher if we allowed carts (buggies). I gave Bobby (Jones) enough space and enough money to do what was necessary to satisfy every one of the USGA’s demands. There would be no resort, spa, cart paths or even a clubhouse.”
Ron Read, the USGA’s former director of regional affairs – west region, was the first USGA man to visit Chambers Bay. A long-time friend of Jones’, Read was well aware the Pacific Northwest had never staged a US Open, so for many years had been on the lookout for a course capable of doing so. He had visited and assessed half a dozen or so courses with good credentials – the Oregon Golf Club, the Reserve, and Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, and TPC Snoqualmie Ridge, Newcastle GC, and Washington National in Washington but rejected them all for one reason or another. Chambers Bay was a very different animal, however. Like so many others before him, Read was shocked and awed by the place and forwarded his judgements to the organisation’s senior director of Rules and Competition, Mike Davis (appointed the USGA’s executive director in March 2011).
At US Open Media Day in the final week of April, Davis remembered his reaction to Read’s phone call. “We receive an awful lot of letters or calls from courses, cities or counties that want to host the US Open,” he told a packed room. “I’m sort of holding the phone away from my ear thinking I’ve heard all this before. But this sounded very interesting. One, it was in the Pacific Northwest where the US Open has never been played in the championship’s 120-year history. So I said, well, keep going. The property was right on Puget Sound. Okay, carry on. There’s almost a thousand acres. Good, that’s enough for the infrastructure. It’s a public-access facility, owned by the County. That’s wonderful. The fact people are going to be able to play a US Open course is something very special. And the last thing was it’s all sand. Anybody that knows anything about golf courses knows that a course built on sand is invariably going to be better than a course built on heavy clay soils.”
Davis was intrigued and paid a visit of his own to the course early in 2006, just a few months after construction had begun. On his return to USGA headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey, he wrote a letter to Ladenburg saying how impressed he had been. “While it is too early to predict just how good the course will be,” he said, “I can say without qualification that you and Pierce County have the real possibility to hit a ‘homerun’ with Chambers Bay. As for the future of a USGA championship, the US Open included, at this point I cannot see any particular aspect that might hold Chambers Bay back.”
Construction was completed in October 2006, and Chambers Bay opened in June 2007. When the economy crashed not long afterwards, however, the course which had cost $24million became something of a liability, and certain sections of the press took to calling it ‘Ladenburg’s folly’. Financial concerns were forgotten for a moment in February 2008, however, when the USGA announced Chambers Bay would host both the 2010 US Amateur and 2015 US Open, after a majority of the members at Winged Foot GC had voted against a return of the US Open just nine years after its last championship. The USGA contacted Jones to ask what flight he might take to get to the press conference following the decision. “I won’t need a plane,” he said, “I’ll fly there on cloud nine.”
“It was like winning the Oscar,” said Charlton. “Twice.”
The 2010 US Amateur, perceived as a dry-run for the US Open and won by Peter Uihlein, was a success although the USGA did identify a number of issues that would need to be resolved before June 2015 rolled around. The rough on the sandbanks and ridges would need to be monitored closely as a number of gallery members had slipped on the shiny fescue turf and required medical attention. The condition of the greens would require serious attention (see the Fescue Whisperer below). Access points, parking, and a safe route around the course for fans would have to be identified. And several holes needed altering to avoid instances where shots finished in the same low point regardless of where they landed or what trajectory they were on. The ground short and left of the 1st green, for instance, was raised slightly so balls didn’t inevitably trickle off the green and down into a collection area 50 yards or more from the hole. The area short and right of the 8th green was likewise improved, a dozen new Championship tees were built, and four green complexes remodeled.
The most controversial change though was definitely the addition of a 12ft-deep bunker in the middle of the 18th fairway, and 115 yards or so short of the green. Known as ‘Chambers Basement’, it was ordered by Mike Davis who wanted to give players finding the rough or bunkers from the tee something to think about before casually laying up anywhere further up the hole. Jones is a big fan
of Mike Davis calling him one of the game’s shrewdest thinkers and strategists. But he is not keen on that bunker. “Mike said he wanted a bunker in the 18th fairway, so we built one about four feet deep,” says Jones. “Mike told us to double it. We did so, and then he just said to keep going. I think it’s a little incongruous with the rest of the course, but I suppose it will add an extra element of drama.”
Rest assured, this year’s US Open is going to throw up more than its fair share of drama. The closing stretch of four holes could well be as compelling as any final quartet in the world, and off the course a good percentage of the field is going to be griping (‘chirping’ Davis calls it) about the conditions. Chambers Bay is so different to what the players experience week in and week out, some just aren’t going to like it. John Ladenburg, now back in private practice working alongside his two sons as a partner in the personal injury law firm of Sadler Ladenburg, is fully prepared for that and believes anyone who brings their typical PGA Tour bomb and gouge game to Chambers Bay is going to have
a very hard time. “Anyone who tries to overpower Chambers Bay is going to get bit,” he says.
On the first morning of play, Ladenburg says he will wander the grounds enjoying the action and soaking up the atmosphere. “Of course I’ll be excited,” he admits. “But more than that, I’ll just be extremely satisfied the dream of bringing the US Open to my hometown is really happening.”