2015 U.S. Open: Architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Weighs in on Chambers Bay

Introduction by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., interview with M. James Ward
June 16, 2015 Updated: June 21, 2015

I remember my father often saying that there are really only two important championships in golf—the U.S. Open and the (British) Open Championship. These are true championships open to any player who qualifies, not invitationals. It’s very exciting for me to be the first living golf course architect since my father, at Hazeltine in 1970, to see the U.S. Open staged on an original course of my own design. 

I’ve attended quite a few U.S. Opens in person over the years. I was at Winged Foot when Billy Casper chipped and putted his way to victory in 1959, and I watched Casper beat Arnold Palmer at The Olympic Club in 1966 when he was down seven strokes with nine to play. I attended all the U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach, and watched the best players in the world vie for our national championship at Shinnecock and Southern Hills in Tulsa and elsewhere. 

Our U.S. Open course at Chambers Bay reminds me of the back nines of the great championship courses at Shinnecock and Ballybunion, in particular, because it’s a three-dimensional links course with great, sweeping climbs and drop-offs.  It has many of the links-like characteristics of places like St. Andrews, but with elevation changes of as much as 200 feet, golfers can’t only play along the ground but must consider the aerial route as well.  Like many great tournament venues it’s also an endurance test—it’s a big muscular layout that presents a hard physical walk. Scenically it reminds me another U.S. Open course, Pebble Beach in the way it sits above the salty sea. On many holes the large greens are reminiscent of the very demanding greens at Oakmont with their undulating contours, and in the way the fairways transition directly into the putting surfaces. 

Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)

Our primary goal in the design and implementation of Chambers Bay was to create a course worthy of hosting the U.S. Open. We not only strived to create a terrific championship golf course with 18 unique holes to test the world’s best players, we also imbued the design to evoke memories from past national championship venues.  Certain holes at Chambers Bay are specific responses to great moments in U.S. Open history. The course is meant to pay homage to our national championship and the drama that has occurred in pursuit of it, while certain holes echo past memorable events of other Opens. 

For example, the first U.S. Open I attended was at Merion, when I was 10 years old, and I watched Ben Hogan hit his famous one-iron shot on the 72nd hole to gain a tie for the lead and subsequently win the championship in a playoff the next day. In those days there were no ropes, and there’s a great photo of my brother and me watching Hogan, Fazio and Mangrum holding the championship trophy in anticipation of their playoff. At Chambers Bay, our eighth hole stretches for more than 550 yards without a single bunker in play.  The terraced fairway is lined by a steep upslope to the left and a downslope to the right.  With the wind swirling in unpredictable ways, a one-iron might be just the right shot to hit—if any of the players even carry a one-iron any more.  But you can see how we designed the hole to evoke that famous shot from the 1950 tournament. 

I also watched David Graham win at Merion, shooting a 67 that Ben Hogan called one of the finest rounds he’d ever seen.  That tournament was a real grind. It was where Jack Nicklaus met his demise by hitting into the small abandoned quarry of the 16th hole. Chambers Bay is built entirely in a huge abandoned quarry, and thus evokes the theme of the quarry hole at Merion. 

A train rambles past the 17th green during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 16, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Harry How/Getty Images)
A train rambles past the 17th green during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 16, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Our sixteenth hole is meant to inspire memories of Oakmont number 17, particularly in the way that it can be set up to play as a drivable par four, as it was when the U.S. Amateur was contested at Chambers Bay in 2010. At Oakmont, Jim Furyk lost the U.S. Open by hitting into the bunker to the left because the shortened length of the hole that day proved surprising to him. Sixteen and Seventeen are the only holes a player can hit a shot out-of-bounds at Chambers Bay, and a ball hit OB onto the railroad tracks could end up on a train headed for Portland, Oregon! 

Number seventeen at Chambers Bay is very reminiscent of the 17th at Pebble Beach.   It’s a long par three near the scenic coast line. The shallow green requires a precise shot that meets similar demands to those posed by Pebble’s 17th.  We hope it will create the kind of excitement that we experienced when we saw Jack Nicklaus hit the flagstick at 17 on Pebble Beach with his tee shot in 1972 and when Tom Watson actually holed out his chip shot from the rough in the 1983 Championship.

All of us involved in the creation and preparation of Chambers Bay, the host course to the 2015 U.S. Open, expect it to provide some fascinating golfing dramas that will be recounted in the golf world for years to come. 

I can’t even describe how honored we are to have our great national Open contested at Chambers Bay.  It is the crowning moment of my 50-year career in golf course design.

MATT WARD: Chambers Bay will mark the truly first “new” course to host a Men’s U.S. Open since 1970 when your father’s work at Hazeltine National was unveiled. Its introduction did cause some major concerns then—most notably comments from Dave Hill along with others who were not as demonstrative. There’s been some preliminary rumblings already from certain PGA Tour players about Chambers Bay—Ian Poulter comes to mind. What’s your take on what your father faced and what you’re facing now 45 years later? 

ROIBERT TRENT JONES, JR.: Any time something is new it’s unknown.  In the case of golf courses, new venues don’t meet the expectations of PGA TOUR players because they can’t have expectations yet.  That makes them anxious. If they want to compete successfully on a new course they should take the time to get to know it and to discover how it might yield. 

I was at Hazeltine with my dad at the U.S. Open and Jack Nicklaus told us there were too many doglegs. I told him that if he didn’t embrace the layout he wouldn’t do well. He objected to my observations. That year, those who were stoic—like Tony Jacklin, who played a wind game—prevailed. Now we’re in a media era dominated by televised golf where entertainment is as important as scoring. But our national championship has always been a stern test of shot making, imagination, and endurance. Pros who put aside complaints because they don’t know the golf course enough to complain about it— and who are stoic, will again prevail.

MW: As architect of Chambers Bay, the presentation of your work will be determined mainly by members of the USGA. Have you had any input and does it concern you that likely your most visible effort to the mass public will primarily be in the hands of others? 

RTJ, JR: At Chambers Bay I was the composer who wrote the score, the USGA will conduct the music, and the players will act as the musicians. In this case I know the players, and I’ve worked closely with the conductor, so I think there will be great harmony. 

Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)

MW: Chambers Bay will feature for the first time fescue grass surfaces. The site has had past issue in terms of turf quality given the fragility of the grass type with the putting surfaces. Can fescue work as well in the States as it does with another major—The Open Championship? 

RTJ, JR.: Fescue is the original grass of our game, it’s worked for 500 years. If it is prepared and maintained properly it makes for firm, fast, and fun golf. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work well at this year’s championship, especially as the event is being played in a maritime climate similar to Britain’s, and the superintendent and agronomic staff have been working hard toward this event for a long time. 

MW: How crucial is it for an architect to have his/her work showcased as a site for a major championship event? Chambers Bay will be your first. Is such a link a major item for overall legitimacy and standing in the field? 

RTJ, JR.: I think my body of work over five decades—we’ve created more than 270 courses on six continents—speaks for itself.  Our courses have hosted many TOUR events, five World Cups, and the Ryder Cup. We’re very honored that the work we did at Chambers Bay has been recognized as worthy of hosting our national championship. It’s the pinnacle of my career. 

MW: You grew up in Montclair, NJ — but been based in Palo Alto, CA for quite some time. Why do you think it’s taken so long for a U.S. Open to finally come to the Pacific Northwest? Did regional bias play a role, or was it simply a lack of comparable quality sites capable in doing what others have done for so long? 

RTJ, JR.: You should address that question to the USGA Executive Committee. Given our own focus on creating great public golf courses open to everyone we admire the USGA’s decision to host the U.S. Open at public venues rather than only at very worthy private clubs. The Pacific Northwest is a beautiful, dramatic part of the country full of athletic young people, so it’s fitting our sport’s top championship should be held there. The area is home to last year’s Super Bowl champions and now we’ll crown our national golf champion there, as well. 

Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. at Chambers Bay. (Wood Sabol)

MW: When people are watching the U.S. Open telecast, what specific insights can you give them to better understand what Chambers Bay will provide as a test to the world’s premier players? There’s been much mention of the “ground game” and its role with this year’s event. 

RTJ, JR.: Viewers should keep in mind Chambers Bay is a three-dimensional links. The golf course rises 200 feet from Puget Sound on three different occasions throughout the round. It’s treeless and without water hazards. The defense we laid out for players is the firm, fast fescue grass. And we defended the course in a new way by using the ground itself: players will have to choose their stances on uneven lies—in some cases possibly on the tee boxes! But they’ll also have so many choices in how to play each hole. Players and spectators alike should watch what happens to golf balls after they land. FOX Sports has promised to help viewers understand this through the use of some exciting new graphics. 

MW: Your company President and Chief Operating Officer Bruce Charlton, who played a crucial role with you in the creation of Chambers Bay, is quoted in his profile by saying , “The most important factor in being a good golf course architect is understanding what the land is doing. The flow of the land is the inspiration on any given site.” What’s are your feelings on those comments and how did you deal with the nature of what Chambers Bay was as a previous mining site prior to its conversion to a golf course? 

RTJ, JR.: Bruce and I have worked together for more than 30 years. We’re members of the strategic school of golf course architecture, not the penal school. We’re like minded in our view that strategy is imbued in the land. The land is our starting point and determines how we’ll create the golf holes on each unique site. At Chambers Bay we had to re-craft the golf terrain because we started with an abandoned sand mine rather than a natural landscape. 

MW: What’s the most under-appreciated, or even misunderstood aspect in golf architecture, that many within the media and golfing public have? 

Justin Rose of England hits a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 17, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Justin Rose of England hits a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 17, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

RTJ, JR: The golf architect is essentially on defense all the time, like a goalie in soccer or hockey. And every time we work the playing field looks different. Therefore, as creators of that field, we have to have a deep understanding of how the game is played at many different levels. 

MW: You have lived your life as the son of man who transformed the role of golf course architect in a major way. How has that large shadow impacted you professionally? 

RTJ, JR,: My dad was not just my father, but my mentor, as well. He was a pioneer, and he not only taught me about golf design but also about how to be a pioneer, which I think I’ve accomplished by creating golf courses in China, designing the first course in Russia, by setting up my business on the west coast and reaching out to the Asian market before anyone else, and in other ways throughout my career. 

MW: Architecture, whether tied to golf or other areas in the broader field, is about creating something that goes beyond the lifetime of any person. How do you wish others to view your work and what, ultimately, do you see as your legacy from having designed courses for many, many years? 

RTJ, JR,: Those in the creative arts are usually too involved in their work, and too passionate about current projects to be very concerned about their legacy. If I’ve managed to create golf art in pursuing my work then it will be taken care of and 100 years from now it will still be honored.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.