Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, WA
Tee Time: May 20, 2013, 9:15, 66 F, light wind
Designer: Robert Trent Jones, Jr (2007)
Playing Partners: CJ Phelan, Pat Spomer, Thomas
Tees: Sand, Par 72 (72.4 rating/135 slope/6,513 yards)
Course Handicap: 14 (11.6 index)
Stats: 94 (48-46); 41 putts; 9/14 fairways; 5/18 greens; 0 penalty strokes
In 2015, the US Open will be held here at Chambers Bay. You’ll see stunning visuals of sailboats and yachts out on the Puget Sound. Countless slow pans of the lone Douglas Fir behind the 15th hole. Maybe even some Jimmy Roberts pieces about the site’s history as a gravel mine. It will look great on television and be one of the most unique majors in recent memory. But nothing compares to actually walking these links. Spending four hours hiking up and down the natural contours of the course, taking in the unmatched scenery with every stride and breathing in the refreshing sea air is hands down the best experience I’ve had yet on this young journey. High above the golf course sits the clubhouse and restaurant, with a panoramic view of the premises as well as an excellent club sandwich. Just be dead sure you have your valuables safely hidden in your vehicle before walking into the pro shop, where there will always be a line of customers purchasing various memorabilia. After checking in, a shuttle will transport you down to the practice range and the rest of the course, dropping off right by the snack shack. The quick bus ride down to this golf playground hauling all your gear gets the adrenaline going in much the same way that taking the gondola up the mountain up with skis in tow does, knowing an awesome day awaits.
There are no golf carts here, no beverage girls and no mercy for bad golf. This is as close as America gets to the sport’s origins across the pond, where golf courses and nature are one and the same. There are no gimmicks or artificial obstacles. The terrain is the challenge here, and it most likely will be more than you can handle. At least the front nine starts off with a short par 5, converted recently from a lengthy par 4. Even then it is a tough par, playing directly into the prevailing winds. There is a large bailout area left of the green, but any pitches from there are very uphill and the green is shallow from that angle. The 365-yard 2nd is the first of many par 4’s with a large fairway bunker or wasteland area coming into play. It is still one of the easier holes on the course if you opt to stay away from all that hazard business. Luckily, the wind stayed calm at the first par 3, the 145-yard 3rd. After the marine layer burns off and the wind kicks up, this hole can mess with those ballooning short irons approaching the green. The long, uphill par-5 4th is best played along the left side. The hole is named “Hazard’s Ascent” because of the sprawling bunkers and rough stretching along the right side from the landing area all the way to the green. Messing with that will put a big number up on the board.
At least it’s bombs away from the tee at the 441-yard 5th, with the largest drop from tee to fairway of any hole. Try to get as far as you can because the green is no fun, sloping back to front and messing with putts even as the ocean still comes into play somehow. Two dogleg right par 4’s wait next, with the longer, 449-yard 7th being the tougher of the pair. More sand and two large dunes covered in rough make this hole tough to play when viewed from ground level. At the very top of the golf course, the par-5 8th rides the ridge for 523 yards. The right edge of the fairway drops off a cliff into trouble, and the left side is full of long grass and awkward lies. The large mounds also tend to kick more shots off line than providing anything favorable. The greatest overall view of the golf course presents itself at the tee of the sharply downhill 9th, 202 yards over more sand and with other unpleasantness waiting beyond. Take in the scene for a moment first, because nothing beats being able to see the entire layout of the course and the surrounding landscape from up here.
Grab a quick snack at the turn because it’s uphill and tight up to the 10th green, 360 yards away. The green itself is a narrow, tricky read with a deep bunker to the left. It gets even longer at the 425-yard 11th, which requires a long carry over a dune to get a good look at a massive green. And then one of the most fun holes at Chambers Bay is next. The short, narrow 262-yard 12th is drivable but getting to the green isn’t even half the battle. Prepare for a roller coaster ride to the pin, especially if it’s hidden in the back. There are steep slopes, big humps and the rear of the green is even scarier than all of that. Says something when 3 of us drove the green and we still all made par. The powers that be at Chambers Bay were kind in changing the long 1st hole from a par 5 to a par 4. Not so at the 13th, a former par 5 now sitting as a monstrous 453-yard par 4. Not only is it long, but there are inconvenient sand traps and tough swales on the green to putt through. Bogey is a great score here, because it’s technically a par. The most beautiful hole in all of Washington, the short par-3 15th, plays downhill to a shallow green that gets tougher with the wind. Distance judgment is much more difficult here than it should be at 116 yards. And that view of the lone Douglas Fir tree set against the backdrop of the Puget Sound is one-of-a-kind.
Another tough hole with lots of sand, the 16th curves up to a narrow, deep green. And if you really miss the golf course from the tee and time it right, you could clank one off of the Union Pacific rolling by along the shore. You could also do that at the last par 3, the 142-yard 17th, but that’s probably harder to do with a short-iron. Again, a massive green, comparable in size to Rhode Island, means it’s not enough to just hit the green, you also have to be in the right area code to keep bogeys away. The final hole, a winding par 5 of 514 yards, is an adventure all on its own. Save your best drive for here, because sand to the left and right leaves a landing strip the width of a bowling lane to work with. You’ll also want to bomb a drive just to enjoy the sound it makes. Being an old gravel mine, there are still five giant concrete walls standing between 60 and 150 yards down the right side that used to support the large bins that held gravel and loaded to the trains, and hearing your thunderous tee shot echo off each wall one by one is crazy. It’s like a sound effect from a sci-fi movie; next time I need to bring a microphone for this. From there it still is a long way up to the green and the most challenging putts yet, with different levels, mounds and sharp breaks that even our local playing partner and his 100 rounds here couldn’t master yet.
Chambers Bay is proud of their golf and it shows. Trophies and awards line the pro shop’s walls. The player assistants along the golf course happily do everything they can to help, carrying bags, pointing out errant golf balls and explaining any quirks to the links. They also offer a caddy service at only $50-plus-tip per person, which is more than worth it even if they only carried your bag. But they also offer other gems about the course like this overheard at the 18th:
“You’ll wanna watch out up here, there’s a deep bunker right in the middle of the fairway just over the ridge. We call it ‘Chambers Va-jay-jay’, you’ll see why” – caddy for the group behind us, talking about the tiny, deep pot bunker basically hidden in the middle of the fairway that was just inserted a few months ago.
Don’t think you’ll be hearing that one on the NBC coverage out of Johnny Miller’s mouth. This is a course where local knowledge can make a world of difference; I’m talking in the 5-10 shot range. Luckily our fourth is a member here and plays 100 rounds a year, so it was like having our own caddy. The links here aren’t a tough walk, but there are two or three hills to climb that can get you a little winded if you’re out of shape or hungover, so be ready for that. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy some great links golf and some of the nicest views in the Pacific Northwest, let alone on a golf course.
#14, Par 4, 407 yards, 6-handicap, My Score: 6
The best part of this hole is the tee shot, because anything can happen. There is a circular pot bunker directly in the center of the fairway that is a perfect target. Land just on the other side of that and kick almost 100 yards further into wedge territory. I hit a 3-wood with some extra roll and watched my ball race along the fairway to the flat bottom where a short approach to a guarded green remains. Like seemingly every other hole here, sand runs the length of the fairway and up to the green, rendering the left side unplayable, so take aim at that center bunker and hope you avoid it.
Layout: A; this course can be played so many different ways. With the wind calm, the greens are receptive to high shots, but also playable with running approaches if the breeze kicks up. The natural waste areas and bunkers as well as numerous mounds make every hole play different every time you walk these links, and no two rounds will ever be the same
Amenities: A; two driving ranges, a great putting green and a state-of-the-art pro shop, plus the restaurant makes a great club sandwich and even has there own Chambers Bay beer.
Staff: A; aside from the parking lot guard warning everyone about their valuables (don’t leave the iPod on the dash…), the employees here honestly want you to enjoy your time here. Talking golf, giving inside tips and looking out for your best interests the entire round.
Difficulty: A; this course was hard from 6,500 yards, I can only imagine how the pros will navigate it with an extra 1,200 tacked on. The wind can turn this course nasty in seconds, and the greens make for many long putts that can break twenty feet at the minimum the further out you go.
Scenery: A; especially with sunny skies, the views here are amazing. The deep blue Puget Sound calmly provides the backdrop to the natural beauty of the links. With the big ridge at the outer edge of the course, the holes are all set in one small area and feels like walking through one giant golfing playground. Even with clouds overhead, each hole is such a sight to take in that any view of the Sound really is a bonus
Value: A; at a peak of $219, Chambers Bay is hands down the best value for a course of its caliber. Comparable to Pebble Beach ($500) and Bandon Dunes ($200 plus the several hours it takes to get there), $219 is a bargain and at only 20 minutes from the airport and 30 or so from Seattle, the most accessible of the three destinations.
Overall GPA: 4.0 (A); the first 4.0 on my checklist. If I inflated grades like high schools do today I’d even go up to a 5.0 maybe. You’ll remember a round here for the rest of your life and the next chance I have to come back I’ll jump on that plane right away. Enjoy it now before the world discovers this gem in 2015.