UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Ten feet. That’s often the difference between a great shot and a bad one at Chambers Bay.
NCAA champ Scott Langley hit 4-iron to Chambers Bay’s par-3 15th hole during Tuesday’s second round of stroke play at the U.S. Amateur. The left-hander pulled it 10 feet right of his target, then watched his ball bound through the green and into a bunker. Had Langley hit his mark, his ball would’ve funneled down a slope and likely ended up close to the hole.
“It’s like playing golf in my driveway,” Langley joked about the firm conditions at Chambers Bay.
Langley used that same slope to save par. His chest was facing the hole when he addressed his bunker shot, which he had to play away from the hole. The ball traveled a U-shaped path on the green, rolling up and down a large slope, before coming to rest 3 feet from the hole.
“You get a lot of funny bounces out here, but that’s the way the course is meant to be played,” said Langley, who shot 74 Tuesday at Chambers Bay. “There’s a lot of slopes that you can use to your advantage, a lot of funnels around the greens and on the fairways that you’re supposed to use. It’s supposed to be firm and fast.
“It’s going to reward the player that really controls their ball, especially their distance.”
Chambers Bay’s fast, firm conditions, and extreme putting surfaces, are driving players wild at the U.S. Amateur. The conditions are exacerbated by the course’s extreme undulations and lack of rough, which can cause balls to bound more than 50 yards away from a player’s target.
Most players are paying the young course compliments, but some are leaving with a bad taste in their mouth. This is an important week for Chambers Bay, the three-year-old links-style course along the Puget Sound. This year’s U.S. Amateur, the first national championship here, is a dress rehearsal for the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
“I don’t know what to say, it’s just so firm,” said two-time U.S. Mid-Am champ Nathan Smith, who shot 74 Tuesday. “It’s just a different style of golf you have to embrace.”
The scoring average for the 156 players who played Chambers Bay on Monday was 79.87. Three players broke par at Chambers on Monday, with Augusta State’s Patrick Reed leading with 68. Seventy-nine players shot 80 or higher Monday at Chambers Bay. That’s more than 50 percent. Five shot in the 90s, including two 95s.
I’d say that’s extreme, but would hesitate to call it unfair.
Part of the high scoring average can be attributed to the U.S. Amateur’s 312-player field, which is twice the size of most tournaments. Many players in the field simply don’t have the skill set to handle a USGA set-up.
“This course really separates the field,” said John Hahn, the 2009 Western Amateur champion. “You have to have total control of your golf ball.”
Players must control the distance their shots travel so their ball hits the proper slopes, and control the shape of their trajectory so the ball rolls the proper direction when it lands.
Oregon’s Jack Dukeminier said he was “relieved” to finish his 76 Tuesday at Chambers Bay. There wasn’t frustration or anger in his voice; he spoke in the hushed tones of a man beaten up over 18 holes.
“It’s got the potential to be great. If they had the same setup but softened the greens, it would’ve been awesome,” he said. “For a guy like me that hits it kind of low, I had no chance. I hit balls in the middle of green on par 3s and ended up in the hay on both of them.”
One of those holes was the 227-yard, par-3 ninth hole, where Dukeminier hit 4-iron. Smith had a similar experience. All three players in his group landed their tee shots around the green, only to watch balls bound through the greens, down a hill and stop near a service road.
It appears the USGA is still learning how to properly prepare Chambers Bay for tournament play, somewhat understandable since this is the first national championship being held here.
There were concerns Saturday, two days before the tournament started, that the course was playing too firm. The USGA increased its watering after that, but it may have been too little, too late. Chambers Bay is built on sandy soil that doesn’t retain moisture well, especially in dry, windy conditions, Davis said.
The grounds crew placed twice as much water on the course as originally planned on the eve of Monday’s first round, then watered again Monday morning.
“Our hope was that amount was going to get us through the day. It didn’t,” Davis said. “It played very well (Monday) morning, even early afternoon. We really did feel that somewhere between 2:30 and 4 o’clock (Monday), it just got too firm on us.”
All of Chambers Bay is covered in fine fescue, which can handle extreme dryness better than most grasses, and allowed the USGA to push the course to the limit.
“On these greens, depending on the quadrant, we’re seeing 3 to 5 percent moisture, which is incredibly low,” Davis said. He was expressing concern, not bragging. “If you did this on bent grass or poa annua greens, these things would be dead. But the fescue just goes dormant.”
The grass may be asleep, but the course is giving players nightmares.