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Chambers Bay golf course in Tacoma evolving into a U.S. Open venue

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Chambers Bay Golf Course - Ninth Tee
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The ninth hole, named Olympus, offers panoramic views of Chambers Bay from the tee, but don't get distracted. It's a 100-foot drop over a chasm to a bunkered green. (Jason Scott Deegan/WorldGolf.com)

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. - The shuttle ride from the Chambers Bay clubhouse might as well be a trans-Atlantic flight.

The ride down the hillside to the bowels of a former gravel quarry takes just a few minutes, but it simulates the 12-hour flight to the magical links of Scotland and Ireland.

Robert Trent Jones II, the man behind Chamber's Bay, seems to have manufactured the most authentic links this side of The Pond. Moving 1.4 million cubic yards of sand and gravel to create towering dunes along the shores of the scenic Puget Sound has stolen the hearts of golfers everywhere, as well as the head brass at the United States Golf Association (USGA).

Chambers Bay, opened by Pierce County in 2007, has already attracted the USGA's signature events: the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open, a coup for the state. Even non-golfers grumbling about where their $20 million in taxes were spent must realize that Chambers Bay, an hour south of Seattle, has become a critical investment in the region's tourism. At the back of the shuttle, there's a map of the world showing where golfers have come from to play the golf course. It's packed with pins around the globe.

The 7,585-yard course sprawls over 250 acres and already ranks as the state's best public course by Golfweek, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. A walker's only course where caddies are strongly recommended, if not required, a round at Chamber's Bay delivers a major championship experience. Golfers tee it up with visions of WWTD - What Would Tiger Do?

"If you sit there from the back tees, you say 'No way,'" says Jim Kraft of Monroe, Wash. "It's gonna be something else to see the pros play the course. You can imagine how they might. It's a challenge every hole, but it's fun."

The best gauge of how the pros will attack the all-fescue course comes from a skins game hosted by PGA Tour pro Ryan Moore last September. Big names like Bubba Watson, Ben Crane and Aaron Baddeley shot in the mid- to low-70s, recalls Chambers Bay General Manager Matt Allen. He calls it "genius" that the course can challenge the pros and still accommodate amateurs.

"Most other U.S. Open sites are really hard all the time," he says.

Several fairways are the widest in golf, although six have been shrunk since the course opened with the addition of a tall, wispy rough. If a Seattle-based Boeing 747 can make an emergency landing in the short grass, you should be there, too, most of the time.

"It's a course that's playable by anybody," says Peter Grubb, a low handicapper visiting from Portland, Ore. "If you keep it straight, it's not too hard. It's not impossible."

USGA adds its touch to Chambers Bay

The USGA continues to tweak the layout by providing nearly $1 million in advance payments, allowing Pierce County to add a 17-acre practice facility and eight new tees for more flexibility.

The USGA recently revamped the green complex and putting surface on the par-5, 568-yard fourth hole to soften some slopes and improve player traffic. The hole could play to a temporary green until after the 2010 Amateur.

"It will be a better hole the second time around," Allen adds.

It's hard to find a signature hole when all the others feature jaw-dropping views.

The 508-yard seventh plays cruelly uphill to an elevated green guarded by two fescue-lined humpbacks in the fairway. The 227-yard ninth, aptly named "Olympus," features a dizzying plummet from tee to green over an expansive bunker chasm. The 304-yard 12th climbs skyward through a narrow chute of dunes to a green 60 yards long.

A lone pine tree - the only tree on the course - frames the backdrop to the 172-yard 15th hole, a par 3 tucked hard against the shore. The finishing holes along the water introduce the real character of the Pacific Northwest. The par-4 16th ("Beached") and the par-3 17th ("Derailed") play alongside railroad tracks, just like many traditional links. Locals say trains rumble by every 17 minutes or so.

The grow-in of an all-fescue course has been a challenge, especially on the severely undulating greens. Allen says green speeds in the summer are regularly nine on the stimpmeter, but they can be shaggy in the shoulder seasons. The ultimate goal is to get them to handle a reading of 10.5 or more, still considerably slower than the 14 achieved at most U.S. Opens.

"With the firm and fast links conditioning and firm greens and lots of slopes in those greens, it will be more like a British Open than a U.S. Open," Allen says.

Chambers Bay: The verdict

There are only a handful of golf experiences as distinct as a round at Chambers Bay. The only shoreline settings I've seen that compare are the titans: Pebble Beach Golf Links, Whistling Straights and the Ocean course at Kiawah Island. Considering the price in peak season ($149 plus $45 for a caddie), Chambers Bay is a steal. The greens still need some TLC to get up to tournament standards, but who can argue with its setting?

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Chambers Bay Golf Course - Hole 15Chambers Bay Golf Course - Hole 17

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Chambers Bay

    Lenman_99 wrote on: Aug 4, 2009

    I played the course in April and it was nice but the greens were definitly what they called "shaggy" in the article. It will be a great course in a couple of years when it mutures. I think the author missed a few courses south of Chambers Bay in his verdict. i tis a great coastal setting but doesn't compare to Bandon Dunes for seaside links feel or for the real links golf feel. I liked it but give me Bandon any day for a place that feels like the old country.


  • chambers bay

    roy forster wrote on: Aug 4, 2009

    found the scenery awesome and the course fair. the greens were slower than expected but can envision faster greens giving the pros a tough time. left with the feeling of having played a true links course (have played St. Andrews & Turnberry). The course gives you the sense that your score can be improved on with a second or third visit.


  • chambers bay

    dyakimec wrote on: Aug 2, 2009

    Chambers Bay has received many a compliment in the brief time it has opened and deservedly so, but it isn't the "magical place" that so many have espoused. Yes, Chambers Bay does possess links like qualities but true links golf cannot be "manufactured".
    Chambers Bay is simply a good course that will reward good shots and with its proximity to Puget Sound, it is visually pleasing to the eye.