Why Chambers Bay is different from any previous US Open host course

Why Chambers Bay is different from any previous US Open host course
Sean Dudley
By Jay Blasi

Chambers Bay will mark a number of firsts for the US Open; first US Open course in the Pacific Northwest, first US Open course played on all fescue turf, first modern design to host the championship since Hazeltine National in the 1970s. But beyond championships, what’s interesting about Chambers Bay is how it encourages creativity on the ground. Chambers Bay, perhaps more than any other American championship course, features green surrounds with major slopes that must be used on approach shots as well as greenside recoveries. These sideboards, backboards, kicker slopes, rolls, swales, hillocks, spines and bowls can separate eager competitors from those who might fall away, frustrated by what they see as ‘unfairness’.

Skilled players are notorious for their ability to control their golf ball. Many of them routinely hit towering long irons 220 yards or more, stopping them on a dime. On the great UK courses, players are asked to deal with the wind and firm conditions. They will often discuss with their caddie the idea of landing the ball short and letting it release to the hole. Occasionally a ball will catch a slope and run off into a pot bunker.

At Chambers Bay players are asked to go a step further. Almost every approach shot has some form of hazard to avoid (perhaps a bunker, a fairway hollow, or a dune) and there are options for players on how to attack. Players can play shots directly at the target, but given the firm conditions that may not be the best way to get close to the hole. Instead, the smart players will study the features around the greens and figure out how to use them in order to get close to the hole.

For example, the fifth hole is a long par four with a menacing bunker in the front centre of the green. Usually, skilled players wouldn’t think much about hitting a high shot over the bunker. But at Chambers Bay, with firm and fast conditions, the aerial approach is unlikely to yield positive results. Instead, the players will need to look right and left. There they will find strong sideboards that can be used. So in order to hit a shot onto the middle of the green, players will likely need to land their ball short right of the green, and let it roll up onto the sideslope and feed down into the middle of the green. This same type of dilemma confronts players throughout the entire round.

The fifth hole is a long par four with a menacing bunker in the front centre of the green (Photo © USGA/John Mummert)

In 2010, the US Amateur was played at Chambers Bay and the results were telling. The championship concluded with Peter Uihlein (then the world’s top-ranked amateur) defeating David Chung (ranked second). As interesting as the finish was, the early rounds told a story as well. Many players had never experienced links golf before. Some were frustrated by their ball not finishing where they hit it. Those players left early. Others, and in particular Uihlein, embraced the ground game. Uihlein and his caddie Alan Bratton studied the slopes and were in constant discussion over where to land the ball and in which manner to land the ball. On the thirteenth hole, another long par four, the caddie and player agreed to land the ball left of the green, but debated if that should be done with cut spin or draw spin. It is this type of thought that will more often yield success at Chambers Bay. 

The player who embraces the ground game will always be at an advantage at Chambers Bay. The player with great imagination around the greens will be at an advantage. The player who shapes each shot and changes trajectory will be at an advantage. 

Be it for a US Open or simply the thinking golfer, Chambers Bay will be an exhilarating challenge.

Jay Blasi is a golf course architect based in California. While working for the Robert Trent Jones II firm he served as project architect for Chambers Bay and designed the course along with Jones and Bruce Charlton

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture - Issue 40