Appeared in Summer 2009 LINKS
The one thing that surprises every first-time visitor to the Masters is the extreme elevation changes of Augusta National Golf Club. Walking the course is not easy, especially for a 69-year-old who had hip-replacement surgery six weeks prior.
So Robert Trent Jones Jr. could be excused for taking an extended lunch break on the veranda. Space is limited, so it’s not uncommon for groups to share the circular tables.
After a group leaves Jones’ table, three spectators quickly claim their seats. The architect greets them warmly: “Hi, I’m Bob Jones.”
Small talk reveals that the three are first-timers to the Masters. After 15 minutes, the question that no doubt had been festering for a while among the trio comes to the surface. “Are you any relation to the Bobby Jones whose name is all over the clubhouse?”
No, but in six years, Jones will get a chance to emerge from the considerable shadows of golf’s other Robert Joneses—not only that of Augusta’s co-founder but also of his own father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., one of the best-known architects in golf history.
That’s when Jones Jr.’s Chambers Bay will host the 2015 U.S. Open, which will make him the first architect to watch the Open contested on one of his original creations since his father at Hazeltine National Golf Club in 1991. (Jones Sr., known as “Trent,” died in 2000.)
“It’s an honor of a lifetime,” says Jones. “Ecstasy is too pale a word to describe the feeling.”
But as Jones learned in person, being a U.S. Open architect is not all bliss. He was 11 when he attended his first U.S. Open, the 1951 championship at Oakland Hills Country Club, which his father had made much more difficult prior to the tournament.
The players howled at the changes. Even winner Ben Hogan thought the course was too hard, telling Jones’ mother, Ione: “If your husband had to play this course for a living, you’d be on the bread line.”
Times have changed, and so has the U.S. Open. For most, the tournament conjures images of a traditional parkland layout at a Northern private club with perfectly manicured, narrow fairways and thick rough, in the manner of Oakland Hills or Winged Foot.
Chambers Bay shares none of those qualities. It is located in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has never seen the U.S. Open. It is a rugged muni, owned by Pierce County. It has wide fairways and little rough. Having been constructed on a former gravel pit next to Puget Sound, the course has just one tree. And it opened in June 2007, less than a year before the U.S. Golf Association awarded Chambers Bay the Open.
Whereas most great courses unfurl hole by hole like the chapters of a novel, Chambers Bay is a giant pop-up book that opens to reveal its entire plot in a single epic setting. From the parking lot atop a hill that showcases the massive scale of the site, every hole below is visible as they wind among the massive dunes and rugged waste areas.
“When we examine a potential U.S. Open site, we look at the golf course first,” says Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and championships. “Our choosing Chambers Bay is great in the sense that it perhaps makes a statement that today’s golf course architects are building some of the best golf courses yet.”
The irony is that Chambers Bay hardly resembles a course that was built. Instead, it looks—and plays—like a links that was naturally formed by the elements.
A round at Chambers is a wild journey, a 7,585-yard romp through dunes and waste areas, and up, over and down hills and bumps that were meticulously crafted to look as if swept by the wind. The fairways are wide—100 yards in spots—but there is seldom a flat lie anywhere, even on the tees, which are as freeform as the rest of the course.
The result is the antithesis of target golf. Featuring fescue grass and built on sand, the walking-only layout plays hard and fast. The tightly knit fairways encourage hitting the ball along the ground whenever possible, using the slopes to feed the ball to the hole. On nearly every hole, the best way to leave tap-in birdies is to hit approaches sometimes as much as 40 yards away from the target, even farther away in the wind.
“One element that intrigued us,” says Davis, who first visited the site during construction, “was that Chambers Bay will be much different than any other U.S. Open test. It will play much like a British Open course. The idea of a ‘bouncy’ Open greatly appeals to us.”
That much is clear from the opening hole, a 498-yard par 4 with a fairway that slopes from right to left, especially as it approaches the green. From 200 yards away, Jay Blasi hits a low draw that lands 20 yards short of the putting surface before rolling onto the green, stopping 10 feet left of the hole.
It is just the way the architects wanted the hole to play, which is not surprising considering Blasi is one of the designers, along with Jones and Bruce Charlton. Nobody knows every hump and bump of the course like the 30-year-old Blasi, who pulled many all-nighters at the office during the design phase and was on site for most of the construction.
Chambers Bay is Blasi’s first design—a golf introduction as impressive as Tiger Woods’ 1997 Masters win in his first major as a professional.
Woods may be one of the most imaginative players in golf, but even he will need some preparation to adjust to Chambers Bay’s holes like the 508-yard par-4 7th, which rises 45 feet from fairway to green.
The hole seems ridiculously difficult, but like a computer programmer, Blasi has built in a backdoor. Following a poor drive and lay-up, I have a shot of 65 yards to a semi-blind flagstick. Blasi suggests hitting an 80-yard shot 20 yards left of the hole. I hit the shot as requested, and the ball careens off a hill behind the green and ends up inches from the hole for a tap-in par.
Remember Tiger Woods’ 90-degree chip-in at the 16th hole during the final round of the 2005 Masters? That type of shot is possible with remarkable regularity at Chambers Bay.
Chambers Bay also will host the 2010 U.S. Amateur, and competitors at either championship would do well to hire Blasi as a caddie. But Blasi, a scratch handicap, has higher aspirations: He wants to become the first contestant since Walter Travis to compete in a U.S. Amateur on a course that he has designed.
Chambers Bay already has made history for its architects, for the USGA and for an entire region of the country. It doesn’t seem so unreasonable to expect yet another extraordinary feat at this remarkable layout.