Klein: What to look for at Chambers Bay
This year’s U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., would be interesting enough just given the unique nature of this links-style golf course. But there’s added interest for viewers at home since this year’s championship is a preview of the U.S. Open to be held here in 2015. Moreover, in the wake of the “Bunkergate” furor that saw last week’s PGA Championship end controversially, there’s reason to think the sandy hazards at Chambers Bay could make for a similar dilemma.
During the first two days of the U.S. Amateur, devoted to stroke-play qualifying, Chambers Bay shares hosting duties with another daily-fee layout, The Home Course. But come the start of match play on Aug. 25, Chambers Bay, a municipal layout, has the spotlight all to itself through the 36-hole final on Aug. 29.
It’s built on an old, abandoned sand quarry, with all of its dunes-like features manufactured, and the whole thing offering 100 feet of elevation change along with stunning views of Lower Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountain Range.
Scenery aside, here’s what to watch for during the nine hours of air time that Golf Channel and NBC are offering.
Golf on a big scale: Chambers Bay, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened for play in 2007, is monumental in scale. The par-71 layout measures 7,742 yards long, making it the longest championship venue in the entire history of the U.S. Golf Association – exceeding Torrey Pines-South, home of the 2008 U.S. Open, by 99 yards.
The scorecard is eye popping, showing only four par 4s at 436 yards or less and the other seven averaging 507 yards, including the 11th hole at 539 yards. OK, so that one plays down the prevailing wind out of the southwest off of Puget Sound. But even with the fescue fairways running fast and firm, that’s lot of ground to cover.
And not only are the holes long, they are also wide, with fairways measuring anywhere from 28 yards across all the way out to 105 yards. So much for a cookie-cutter formula for course setup.
Short Grass as Hazard: With fairways that wide you’d think that any shot off the tee would be in play, but the point of those fairways is to allow the ball to roll out – and this on fairways where there’s vertical fall of 10-plus feet from one side to the other. On tee shots and around greens, the idea is to use the roll of the ball as a central feature; instead of a protective collar of rough to cushion the ball, there’s little to stop the ball from rolling out, down, away and into trouble. And at Chambers Bay, trouble can means vast stretches of sandy waste, primary rough cut to 3-4 inches deep; or wispy, gnarly fescue that can go from ankle-top to knee-high deep.
Flexibility: In what is surely a first for the USGA, two of the holes have flexible pars. For stroke play the first hole will be set up as a par 4 of 501 yards, but for a few of the match play rounds it will convert to a par 5 of 542 yards. When it does switch over, the 18th hole, normally a par 5 of 604 yards, will be converted to a 525-yard par 4.
A line in the sand: One immediate consequence of the debacle at Whistling Straits last week involving Dustin Johnson on the 72nd hole is that the USGA is making sure that all bunkers are clearly defined at Chambers Bay. Massive stretches of the course are allowed to stand as unkempt sandy waste with clumps of fescue and other grasses. But there are also clearly maintained areas adjoining fairways and greens where the daily attention of the maintenance crew’s handiwork will be obvious.
As Davis points out, it’s easier to keep bunkers maintained as bunkers when you don’t have 40,000 spectators tromping through the peripheral areas. “At a PGA or U.S. Open it’s another issue, but at a U.S. Amateur, where we don’t expect daily crowds of more than 4,000-5,000, it’s much easier.”
He and the entire officiating crew will continue to work hard with superintendent Dave Wienecke in distinguishing the look of those respective areas. But Davis also has cautionary advice for contestants, just in case.
“When in doubt, treat it as a hazard rather than as area through the green where you can ground the club.”
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Three key holes
- 12th hole: Par-4, 304-yard hole that plays uphill and is readily drivable with a prevailing tailwind. But that’s where the fun begins, since the putting surface is a wild roller coaster of a ride, 60 yards deep, with three steep tiers and half tucked behind a bunker. Players with a 2+ hole lead will consider laying up here, but the landing area short is the narrowest on the course and still leaves a tricky half-blind shot in. Eagle is in play here, but so is a double - or triple – bogey.
- 15th hole:: Par 3, 246 yards, downhill to the most segmented and most tightly guarded green on the course. The new back tee creates a jaw-dropping view of the green against the background of Puget Sound, but from that height it also brings the wild winds into full force regardless of direction, though usually it’s quartering from the left. The tee here will occasionally be moved down to allow the hole play as short as 140 yards, but the real issue is a putting surface that feels less like one green than like four or five small ones.
- 16th hole: Par 4, 425 yards. Scenic, as it runs right along the shoreline and the railroad, and seemingly receptive given all of the fairway room to the left of the long bunker lining the entire right side. But this is the most elusive green at Chambers Bay; shaped like a bowling pin and tucked deep into a line of dunes, with the base of the green wide but the neck and head offering little width and tucked deep into a sandy stretch. Into a prevailing southwest wind it plays really tough, since the approach shot continually gets buffeted short and left. Downwind it could be set up to play so short that it’s nearly drivable, though regardless of the tee shot the real trick is in holding on to this green for dear life.
With wind, firm sandy ground and fibrous fescue for fairways and greens, Chambers Bay plays like an amped-up links. For a contrived layout it looks like it has been there in its weather-beaten mode for a very long time. It’ll be a wonder to behold, not only for the players but also for those whose vantage point is a couch in front of the TV.