Early this week, the best male golfers in the world convened on a municipally-owned course, a triumphant past U.S. Open host that sits on a dramatic strip of coastline overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Phil Mickelson was on site early. So, too, was Bryson DeChambeau.
Up the coast some 1,200 miles, another municipally-owned past U.S. Open site was open for public play. There were no Tour pros present. Rain threatened a full afternoon tee sheet. A dramatic sheet of fog rolled across the inlet; Chambers Bay isn’t quite on the open ocean but feels that way. A group of Seattleites sent their tee shots down the first fairway and trudged gamely into the drizzle.
There are a handful of big-picture similarities between Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay. They’re the only two West Coast munis to host the U.S. Open. They each produced big-time champions in unforgettable fashion. In non-tournament times, residents of each course’s respective county can play for a relatively modest greens fee. And they’ve been part of a two-decade mission from the USGA to highlight more accessible golf courses at its highest-profile championship.
But their differences are at least as important.
Torrey Pines sets up like a traditional U.S. Open; we don’t have to wait for Thursday this week to know we’ll be watching pros navigate thin fairways, thick rough and tricky greens. The course is familiar to avid golf fans, too; in addition to the 2008 U.S. Open, we see Torrey on the PGA Tour schedule every year for the Farmers Insurance Open. Tiger Woods has won the Farmers seven times, and it’s impossible to overstate just how important that is to the health and perception of the tournament venue. Torrey’s lone stint as major host went well for the same simple reason: Tiger Woods won the event in wild, dramatic fashion.
Chambers Bay, on the other hand, has always been intentionally non-traditional. Wide fairways provide ample space off the tee. The rough is sparse, where it exists. Gorse and waste bunkers are the order of the day; they guard the holes’ perimeters. When Chambers hosted the 2015 U.S. Open, a terrific champion (Jordan Spieth) held off a worthy challenger (Dustin Johnson) while shooting a satisfying U.S. Open score (five under) for four days. Great news, right?
Not completely. Deserved or not, a few vocal dissenters, a balky Fox broadcast, a challenging spectator experience and a sketchy 18th-hole three-putt from would-be winner Dustin Johnson carried the day. The tournament hiccups became synonymous with the course itself. Oh, and Woods played poorly, missing the weekend. That’s always bad for business.
In the golf world, major championships serve as markers of time. But they can also remind us how time bends in our minds. Last month, we all squawked about how Rory McIlroy’s 2012 win at Kiawah felt like yesterday. But Chambers Bay is beginning to feel an entire generation removed. After all, it’s not clear the game’s very best will ever be back.
A lot has changed in six years. Jordan Spieth has lived an entire career since then, complete with dips and valleys, triumphs and and pseudo-slumps.
Johnson left Chambers still without a major, but now he has two — plus the World No. 1 rank.
Woods’ golf future looked decidedly uncertain at Chambers; the tournament’s enduring imagery includes at least one shot of him sitting defeated in the dunegrass. He has three victories since then, including a Masters — and he’s surpassed that number in major surgeries since then, too.
It’s not just the players that have changed. Chambers marked Fox’s championship golf debut. In the years that followed the network got much better, cycled through talent, upped its strategy and ultimately tapped out. Fox is now out of the golf coverage game completely. And while a majority of change-resistant fans may not miss them, they probably should. Fox was dismissed as weird, but it brought something different to the table and pulled the entire product of televised golf into the modern era. Chambers can relate.
The course is different now, too. The greens, which were brown and speckled in 2015, have been completely redone. Rather than continue to fight off invasive poa annua, which contributed to the bumpiness of the fescue putting surfaces, Chambers embraced the poa and replaced all 18 greens. They’ve received rave reviews.
The entire place is a different color now, too. Part of the confusion in 2015 was that U.S. Opens are traditionally lush and green, while Chambers was a browned-out neo-links course with shocking slopes. It’s never meant to look like the bottle-green of Augusta National, but it’s far greener now than it was.
Regionally, Chambers Bay always garnered plenty of respect. Locals blame anything from bad luck to bad weather to USGA stubbornness for the issues with the greens in 2015, but the general consensus is that the course is spectacular, regardless of what the TV audience thought. Weekend tee times at Chambers remain hot commodities. There’s no golf experience like it anywhere else in the region.
I teed off on Sunday afternoon at 4:10 p.m. with a mixed, excited foursome. There was my friend Pat, who lives in Seattle, my cousin’s friend Dave, who happened to be in town for a wedding, and another guy named Dave, of Dave & Matt Vans, who was dropping off the big rig I’d be using for my subsequent trek to Torrey Pines. Neither Dave had played the course before, and they got the entire range of weather. Drizzle. Dramatic fog. Heavy rain.
The greens were somehow puddling but also faster than they looked. The fairways, which are sand-based and drain well, continued to roll out. Despite plenty of errant shots, we didn’t lose many balls. Despite potentially miserable conditions, we didn’t lose morale, either. Chambers Bay is fun to play.
The course ebbs and flows in a particularly satisfying way; even though the entire place is on one piece of connected property, each hole is easily distinguishable from all the others.
No. 1 plays down toward the water, yielding an early scoring opportunity (unlike the pros, civilians play it as a par-5). No. 4 charges back up the hill, demanding a heroic carry uphill over a mass of sand. No. 5 delivers a dramatic view. No. 8 plays along the uppermost ridge. No. 10 slithers up a chute, framed by dunes that loom on either side. No. 13 boomerangs you along the perimeter of the property before No. 15 delivers you back to the water’s edge, where you’ll spend the next three holes. There’s some inefficiency in a couple of the green-to-tee walks, but the experience of the course itself keeps you on your toes.
The rain stopped completely — and mercifully — as we played that closing stretch. Streaks of sun bounced off the bay. A train came rumbling past as we putted out on 17. Dusk set in as we stood on the 18th tee, admiring the massive cement structures that sit, ruin-like, along the right side, remnants of Chambers’ past as a rock quarry and gravel mine. We were soggy but happy.
The USGA hasn’t abandoned Chambers; quite the opposite. The U.S. Amateur Four-Ball was there just last month, and the U.S. Women’s Am is slated for 2022. There are rumblings that a U.S. Women’s Open could follow. The men’s Open schedule has filled up for most of the next decade, though. If the powers-that-be are plotting a return trip to University Place, they’re playing it pretty cool.
Despite its time in the limelight this week, Torrey Pines faces a similarly murky U.S. Open future. The USGA loves the ratings boost that comes with a West Coast major, but the “anchor sites” that constitute the tournament’s regular rotation don’t allow for much flexibility going forward.
As we putted out on 18 I returned to the site of Johnson’s three-putt demise. The green is an entirely different color now. Greener. Less speckled. Slower, too. And smoother. The pin was in the front left part of the green, so Johnson’s hole location (back left) required some imagination. In my mind, I drained the putt and claimed the U.S. Open title.
Post-round we performed one of golf’s most satisfying rituals — changing out of soggy clothes — and then took a peek from the upper parking lot out onto the ninth tee. The rest of the course stretched out beyond, empty and spectacular. A fiery, concentrated sunset bounced off the water. I was struck with the realization that this must happen nearly every evening in the summer.
Chambers Bay will be just fine.