Q&A: First of Its Kind - First of Our Kind
by Jay Flemma
Next June, the U.S. Open will come to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in the 115-year history of the championship. And out of all those 115 years, Chambers Bay in University Place will be a first-of-its-kind Open venue.
Tees clinging to precipices, fairways tumbling amid heaving sandy dunes, and a true links course on the edge of a Sound surrounded by verdant tree-covered mountains, the course will raise the bar for seaside courses in America and major championship venues.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. – the chairman and master architect of the golf course design firm that bears his name, the firm that designed Chambers Bay – answers a few questions about why this Open will be like no other.
Jay Flemma: How is Chambers Bay different from any other major championship venue we’ve seen before?
Robert Trent Jones Jr.: It is the first “new” or “modern” design to host a U.S. Open since my father’s course, Hazeltine National, staged the 1970 Open. Chambers Bay is also the first course built in the 21st century to host the U.S. Open. So that’s exciting. I can follow in my Dad’s footsteps again, while blazing my own trail at the same time.
Then, too, Chambers Bay is an authentic links course, in an authentic maritime climate, with genuine fescue grasses throughout, sandy waste areas, and a treeless (well, one tree!) expanse which leaves the course completely open to the wind. And believe me, if the wind whips around in swirls along Puget Sound like it’s prone to do, it could be the windiest U.S. Open since my Dad’s work at Hazeltine.
This may also be the toughest test the touring pros will face regarding what the ball will do when it lands; it will run out in unpredictable ways.
JF: Sort of like Olympic Club (in San Francisco)?
RTJ2: Only a little. Olympic Club is surrounded by trees, remember. If it’s like anything, it would be Shinnecock Hills (four-time site of the U.S. Open), but there are still significant differences. Shinnecock’s bunkering is more traditional to what you find in the Golden Age courses. Chambers Bay’s holes are bracketed by wholesale wasteland areas, and it’s made to look like it’s carved out of the sandy dunes. Plus the winds that whip across the fairways are a hazard in and of themselves.
JF: How much more difficult will the course play in windy conditions? Will the crosswinds wreak havoc on scores? Like Turnberry on 2009?
RTJ2: Chambers Bay has much wider fairways than Shinnecock, so players can adjust to the wind conditions. There’s more room to play out there.
JF: So Chambers is tough to play in a crosswind, but not impossible?
RTJ2: There is a mix of winds that come up during just a few hours of play, and they change directions and, in places, they swirl. But then the fairways also twist and turn, so you’ll face every direction of the compass and therefore many different angles of wind.
JF: Like Muirfield?
RTJ2: Yes, Muirfield does that by turning around itself in concentric circles.
Another way in which Chambers it is different from all the other major venues is that the transitions from the fairways to the greens are imperceptible – it’s all the same grass, tightly mown so you have lots of options around the greens. It especially encourages bump and run shots as well as putting from long distances.
JF: So it’s really going to be like a British Open in June?
RTJ2: It will have the same characteristics as many British Opens. Then we’ll get an actual British Open at St. Andrews a month later!
JF: How were you able to make Chambers Bay tough on professionals, yet playable for the everyday golfer?
RTJ2: The long ribbon tees are sometimes 120 yards or more from the back tees to the forward tees, so there is great flexibility there. Also, the fairways, although deceptively wide, induce the better players to try to bomb away, but if you drive too far, suddenly you don’t have a good angle for your next shot. Length is valuable, but distance and control – both of them – are critical to being able to position yourself for the optimum angle for the next shot at Chambers Bay.
JF: Tell us about the creation of the newly-added “Chambers Basement” bunker in the middle of the 18th fairway?
RTJ2: That was (USGA Executive Director) Mike Davis’ idea, his concept. The idea was a bunker 11-feet deep with steep sidewalls. It’s about 120 yards short of the green, and it will really come into play. It’s a penal hazard that must be avoided!
JF: Has anyone gotten up and down out of it?
RTJ2: Not to our knowledge! I watched you get down in three shots, and we all said that was impressive. You are tied for best with down in three!
JF: You said in an earlier interview that Chambers Bay was not simply a bit of a departure for you, but a more expansive example of ideas you’d been working on for years. It seems you started designing like your Dad did, but then changed over time to a more strategic, links school of design. How is your architectural style different from your father’s?
RTJ2: I’m still influenced by Dad. His spirit lives in me and in his great golf works. But you’re right when you said Chambers Bay was a bit of a departure for me. I started my career elevating greens and built hard, heroic courses like Princeville (on Kauai) or like Joondalup in Australia. But I’ve done enough design around the world for so many different people on so many different sites that I don’t get stuck in one form.
When it comes to linksy golf, I’ve done Spanish Bay (at Pebble Beach), and the National in Cape Schanck, near Melbourne. When we are on linksland, we do linksy things.
I also love Pine Valley (in New Jersey). It’s an inland links – really a heathland course – but it’s not just the big course that gave me some ideas for Chambers Bay, but the little 10-hole course that replicates the holes at Pine Valley, the one designed by Fazio and the president of the club.
The grass for the tees and fairways at Chambers Bay are identical, just like the fairways at Pine Valley. Moreover, the bunkering and the waste areas are inspired by Pine Valley and to a lesser extent Shinnecock and the first five holes at Spyglass Hill, a flowing, sandy unkept wasteland. There are only six (now seven) actual bunkers at Chambers Bay. The rest are sandy areas.
But major championship venues are about golf at the highest level. Chambers Bay is not just a departure or just a continuation of my love for and evolution into links golf designing – Chambers Bay is unique. We got a great site with sandy soil and room for 50,000 spectators. I can’t wait for the day to come and join my Dad in another way – he and I will be the only architects to actually attend a U.S. Open hosted by a course he designed. It may have happened well back in the old days, but in the modern age, my Dad was the last one to do it.
In researching his book on America’s great public golf courses, Jay Flemma has played over 420 nationally-ranked public golf courses in 40 states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. His pieces on travel and golf course architecture have appeared in Golf Observer, Cybergolf.com, PGA.com and Golf Magazine. Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an entertainment and Internet law professor in Manhattan.