Behind the Curtain at Chambers Bay
University Place, WA—Golf has four major championships. The Masters, played annually in April at Augusta National, starts the procession of events. The U.S. Open is America’s national championship and the event traditionally concludes on Father’s Day.
As with The Masters, four golf architects were asked to provide their insights into what could be one of the most fascinating Opens in recent memory.
Chambers Bay is the first facility to have hosted the U.S. Open in the Pacific Northwest and is only the third municipal course to be selected. The course will also play on fescue grass—the first time that has ever happened.
The four architects providing comments are:
Lester George: Golf course architect for 25 years, located in Richmond, VA. Member of the ASGCA since 2006, also retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel. Notable award-winning designs and renovations include Kinloch Golf Club, The Old White, Country Club of Florida, Ballyhack Golf Club, Independence Golf Club. www.georgegolfdesign.com.
Richard Mandell: Based in Pinehurst, North Carolina, is an Associate member of the ASGCA and has designed or renovated over 60 courses since 1992. Among his most prominent works are Skydoor Golf Club in China and Keller Golf Course in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Stephen Kay: Since 1983, he has designed 20 new golf courses while providing renovation services to over 250 courses specializing in, Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and Charles Banks. Stephen also teaches course construction and design history and principles in Rutgers University Professional Turfgrass Program.
Kelly Blake Moran: In 31 years he has collaborated with other professionals in design, permitting, and construction of 23 new golf courses, and renovation of 15 existing golf courses in five (5) countries. Can be reached at [email protected] or through his Website: www.kellyblakemoran.com.
Question 1: Chambers Bay is a relatively unknown entity on the world golf stage, even though it hosted the ’10 US Amateur. What constitutes a successful inaugural onto the world stage?
MANDELL: It is when the event is exciting, the pros rave about the venue and its strategic value beyond keeping it in the middle, and the public sees something in the course that doesn’t just reward negotiating difficulty. In other words, the public witnesses a course design and setup that aren’t entirely dependent on perfection in terms of both conditioning and play. The course is relate-able to their experiences.
GEORGE: Depends on your perspective of success. From an architecture standpoint, Chambers Bay should be touted as an environmentally sound use of a brown site, model of sustainability from a water conservation effort and a strategic golf course no matter the scoring, because it offer different routes of play and different teeing options. It will be interesting to see how the USGA and FOX Sports present it.
MORAN: Success is not determined solely upon the quality of the golf course presented at the inaugural. Many other factors including infrastructure and logistical issues related to the location, and economic and political influence possessed by the local hosts can overcome many of the shortcomings in the golf course. If the venue meets the basic requirements and all of these factors, including the golf course, can be changed and molded then it will be judged a success and we will see more events hosted there.
KAY: A successful inaugural onto the world stage, I would say it does not get much better than a U.S. Open. If a known player who has won a major or two should win that would just make it all the better.
Question 2: The flip side—what constitutes an unsuccessful rollout?
GEORGE: I think the only thing that could be deemed “unsuccessful” in the rollout would be poor production values from FOX Sports. If the telecast is too laden with commercials, poor commentating or fluff, the public will be turned off. However, from what I have heard they (FOX, USGA) are going to do with technology and programming, it sounds like it could be very entertaining and enjoyable for even the casual observer.
KAY: Bad weather every day, an unknown winner would not help, and rules problems—especially in regards to the putting surfaces being mowed at the same height as the fairways (this could lead to a big problem where a player makes a mistake—think Dustin Johnson at Whistling Straits) but really how can you screw up a U.S. Open?
MANDELL: A sleeper of an event on a boring golf course that is totally dependent on making it a slog for the professionals without any strategic value whatsoever. In other words, almost any U.S. Open venue or PGA Championship venue from the 80s and 90s. Take your pick.
MORAN: It is hard to remember a rollout that was universally panned, though there probably have been a few in history. In time if the will of those in charge of the local venue falters or if they lose confidence in the mission and they become either unwilling or unable to adapt to changes required by the many interests invested in the production, then the initial rollout would be judged a failure.
Question 3: Robert Trent Jones, Jr. is the man responsible for the design of Chambers Bay but ultimately the USGA determines how the course is prepared and ultimately set-up for the Open. As an architect would that concern you that your role is more bystander given your fingerprints on the actual design?
KAY: I understand it the USGA’s tournament but it would be nice if the architect could be a member of the course setup committee. In fact maybe the architect would surprise them with an idea.
GEORGE: My experience with USGA Championships and PGA Tour events played on my courses has been mixed. Good or bad, the architect understands that it’s their event and they have a different mission in setting up a tournament for the best players in the world. As long as they respect the tenets of good architecture and the game, I am okay with it. In this case, I think the USGA has done a good job interviewing Bobby Jones and Bruce Charlton and researching their design intent. They spent a lot of time on the site with the designers and worked hard to understand what the architects were trying to achieve.
MORAN: If the architect is engaged to design a course for a TV production like a U.S. Open then all interests should be engaged in that process from the beginning. If the architect is engaged to design a golf course they should have the greatest amount of creative freedom to create what they believe in. After that the architect has done their job and they should move on and continue to grow as a designer and not be burdened by adaptations proposed by others who do not share their values.
MANDELL: Not in the least because I would work to design something so intriguing for the average golfer and professional alike that the USGA would feed off the design to make its course set-up decisions. For me, the best golf holes are the ones whose strategy comes out of the lay of the land. I think that in Opens of the past, the golf course was so non-descript that the USGA fed off that to create the slogs Mike Davis is working to get away from. Creative course set-up will come from creative design.
Question 4: Course flexibility is something Chambers Bay provides: the moving of tee boxes, pin placements on massive greens and even angles for approaches to the putting surfaces. How important is this dimension and can such flexibility be overdone?
MANDELL: You say flexibility, I say variety. Variety is the spice of life—and great design. I think this dimension is very important. It can be overdone when it becomes repetitive—the same “revolutionary ideas” replicated hole to hole. If these ideas aren’t genuine, then it can be overdone in that sense as well. For example, if the use of two different tee boxes that, in reality, provide the same challenge is hyped up in the name of flexibility, then it is beyond overdone.
MORAN: Flexibility can be overdone only in the sense that the design features don’t meaningfully engage any golfers.
GEORGE: In my opinion, flexibility and options for playing different shots, in varying conditions is the most important opportunity at Chambers Bay. Keep in mind, this will be the first modern course that will showcase ribbon tees with some slope to them. It also the first time in recent American golf that the players may actually be better off aiming away from the green and to use the ground surrounding the green to move the ball close to the hole. That is what flexibility can bring.
KAY: The very wide fairways are a must with the wind out there and wider fairways means more strategic golf. I played Chambers back in 2009 and playing it just once is not enough. This a golf course you must play many, many times under different conditions to do your best. Mike Davis said this and he is absolutely correct.
Question 5: Mike Davis, the USGA’s Executive Director and point man in setting up the daily presentation for Chambers Bay, hinted in earlier comments there may be tees in which the players will have to adjust themselves for uphill, downhill, and side-hill situations. Candidly, is such an outcome contrived?
KAY: I will very much enjoy watching how the players use the movement on the tees. Bobby Jones did not design level tees but put in gentle side slopes so the players could use them to help hit say a bid fade or a hard draw. When I played in Scotland in the mid-1980’s many of the tees were not that flat and you had to adjust for them or take advantage to them—I like it.
GEORGE: Absolutely not. This is why this course is memorable. I think it is Mike Davis’ opinion that this will identify the best players. Some will whine, but, when you think about it, those that accept that and understand that, will use those teeing options to their advantage by setting up to hit the “required” shot.
MORAN: It is contrived and is one of the many symptoms that have manifested from the illness caused by the lack of meaningful controls that should have been placed on technology. Ninety-nine percent of golfers do not need the added burden of teeing from sloping ground. Given the persistent addiction to deep rough at championship venues we may see the pros having to tee their ball in deep rough in the near future; what a joy that will be to watch.
MANDELL: I’d say it is contrived. I always go back to the origins of the game when considering architectural possibilities and in this case, course set-up. I don’t believe the early tees were ever uneven on purpose. It was simply two club lengths away from where they last holed out. I’m guessing that human nature back then (as today) would lead most of our golfing forefathers to find a flat lie within those two club lengths. Yes, contrived.
Question 6: The chief leaders of the USGA and R&A are always touting the virtues in having a course for their respective Opens be “firm and fast”—where the bounce of the ball is integrated into the overall presentation. What’s the balancing line between appropriate “firm and fast” and when things get to the point of luck overtaking skill?
GEORGE: I think golf would be incredibly boring if every aspect of the game was predictable. “Firm and fast” should be more accepted and understood in this country and embraced as the surface of the future. Again, those players that adapt to the daily conditions will have the best opportunities for success. There has to be an element of luck with this level of play. Without it, the mentally unprepared get away with mediocrity. These players are all highly-skilled but if they are frail of composition, that should be exposed and they should have no chance to the national champion.
KAY: “Firm and fast” can be too firm and fast. Yes luck is part of the game but I do not think if Donald Ross saw this he would be happy with it. There should be some degree of assurance that the player can figure how a golf ball will react to the ground or the turf.
MANDELL: Going back to the origins of the game, luck was always a part of golf. I don’t think that a tipping point of too much good luck will ever overtake skill. Putting yourself in the right position always leads to luck more than we want to give credit anyway. It is an entirely new element that has laid dormant in USGA events for a long time—maybe ever. As long as conditions are consistent from day to day, I think there is no line. That said, manipulation of conditions is another story and has no place in “identifying the best player.”
MORAN: The line may be drawn in the initial design when the notion of a ground game type course must be fully embraced. It is likely the greens and greens surrounds will need to be of sufficient size to accommodate championship golf maintenance standards that are subject to unpredictable weather conditions.
Question 7: This year’s U.S. Open marks the first time fescue grass will be the dominant surface—including the putting greens. What’s your experience with fescue grasses and your prediction on how things will turn out at Chambers Bay?
KAY: I played in Scotland on fescues and I planted a very high percentage of fine fescues at the Links of North Dakota. It is different and you have to get use to it. It’s much faster than bent, poa and Bermuda surfaces.
MANDELL: I haven’t used straight fescue grass for fairways—only in a blend with blues and bents. Remember last year everyone was so concerned with how the Bermuda would hold up for two weeks and it was fine. Too many journalist have their mail-order agronomy degrees in their hands too often these days.
GEORGE: I have played the course and I think the grass is perfectly suited to hold a championship. Based on my discussions, the “target” speed on the greens is somewhere in the neighborhood of 11.5 on the stimpmeter. If there is no rain (the forecast isn’t calling for much if any) they will achieve those speeds by constant mechanical rolling, not cutting the grass unhealthily short. The golf course was originally designed with little or no rough in mind. I hope we don’t see an overkill or unwieldy length of rough because it will affect the ground game too much. Keep in mind, this Open will have a couple of very unique things in fairways as well. The narrowest ever at 18 yards wide, and the widest ever at 103 yards. I think that speaks to the flexibility of the fescue as well as anything.
MORAN: I do not have the experience or expertise with fescue fairways or greens to predict how things will turn out. It is encouraging to see turf science, design, and maintenance professionals collaborating on these issues and decisions.
Question 8: Rank the four majors in order of golf importance as you see them and quickly say why?
KAY: I have to rank them in the order they are played.
2). U.S. Open
3). British Open – sorry I am an American.
4). PGA. If there ever was a fifth major—which I do not think there should be—it would be the Players.
1) Open Championship—tradition, history .
2)U.S. Open—My favorite to watch on TV for drama.
3) Masters—My favorite place to watch in person.
4) PGA—Should be replaced by the Players.
1) Open Championship—Best golf courses.
2) Masters—One venue by which to compare and contrast a long history of a great tournament.
3) U.S. Open—Occasionally visits great golf courses.
4) PGA—Hurt by timing when focus has shifted to the NFL
1). U.S. Open—the most significant measuring stick among American pros as to their worth, mostly because of the course set-up and difficulty. The world’s best golfers measure their success against the Americans so by default they secretly want to win the U.S. Open more than anything else.
2). British Open—The granddaddy of them all.
3). The Masters—A tradition like no other but still doesn’t reflect a national championship like the two Opens do.
4). PGA Championship—As much as I hate to say it, the PGA is too similar to the U.S. Open. If the media didn’t beat it up so much and if the pros truly had a soft spot for the PGA of America, it may be ranked a bit higher—3.5. For me, it’s solid 3.25.
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.