On a site that just 10 years ago was still the remnants of an old sand and gravel quarry, the world’s elite golfers are now gathering to compete for the 2015 U.S. Open. Brad Klein considers the incredible story of Chambers Bay.
Every golf course project comes with a remit—a program for development, against which the success or failure of the resulting design will be measured. At Chambers Bay in the Tacoma suburb of University Place, Washington, the expectation placed in the hands of golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., ASGCA Past President, and his partner and lead project architect, Bruce Charlton, ASGCA Past President, was far more ambitious than normal.
The visionary for the municipal undertaking, Pierce County executive John Ladenburg, was simple, clear and direct in his mandate to the design team: take an abandoned, 930-acre gravel quarry and convert its post-industrial detritus into a stirring links-style golf course and public park that would be an engine for regional tourism development and would hold the Pacific Northwest’s first-ever U.S. Open. To industry observers, that mandate 15 years ago crossed the line of ambition and entered the realm of delusion. And yet here we are, on the verge of that U.S. Open and the golf course is doing all it was supposed to do—and more.
Not without some major hurdles. Converting the country’s single largest source of sand and gravel into a championship links was a monumental task of political will, inventive engineering, and meticulous planning. The process started in 1992, when the county’s wastewater treatment district purchased the site for $43 million from mining firm Lone Star Northwest with plans for establishing a water treatment facility there and reclaiming some of the unused portion for public use.
The setting for what was initially termed Chambers Creek was ideal for recreation—along a two-mile stretch of lower Puget Sound, with clear views of the Olympic Range and with pedestrian access from a near highway that brought folks from the country’s 15th largest metropolitan area (Seattle-Tacoma) to the very rim of the cored-out parcel. In what would turn out to be a crucial decision, Pierce County officials retained the permit to mine the site. They didn’t know it at the time, but without that residual right they could never have built the course.
Ladenburg, an elected official, was inspired by the fact that municipally owned and operated Bethpage State Park-Black Course in Farmingdale, New York had landed the 2002 U.S. Open. He knew the U.S. Golf Association had been searching for a suitable Pacific Northwest site for its premier national championship and began to formulate a plan.
Critics, including many county residents, derided what came to be known as ‘Ladenburg’s Folly.’ But he was convinced and stuck his neck out by pushing for the project, often having to work hard to achieve favorable 4-3 votes from the County Council on permitting, planning and issuance of special revenue bonds to the tune of $22.8 million, payable over 30 years. He knew the crucial difference in quality, he says, between getting something 99-percent right and getting it 100-percent right. Given the complexities of the site, it was no surprise to him that initial budget estimates of $15 million grew by almost 50 percent as the project neared completion. “I kept telling the Council,” says Ladenburg, “that 100 years from now, no one will look back and wish that Ladenburg hadn’t spent an extra $10 million.”
The design team of Robert Trent Jones II won the contract for the golf course in a highly competitive process involving top-notch firms. Municipal bids are always a complex matter. Smart government officials have learned that fee is only one factor, and that if contracts are allocated solely on the basis of lowest bidder, government agencies will end up getting what they pay for (or not).
What ultimately swayed Ladenburg and Pierce County officials towards Jones was a combination of factors: the firm’s experience with environmentally challenging sites; its extensive work with municipalities; the scope of the firm’s ‘all-in’ commitment to the project; and a certain intangible sensibility about knowing what it would take to get the project on the USGA’s radar screen for serious consideration as a major site.
All of this was affirmed at the final interview, when the Jones team gave the County slightly more than it asked for. Not only did they present, as required, a plan for 27-holes. They also went beyond the remit to showcase an 18-hole plan, one that avoided the inevitable compression of parallel holes that would have been required to fit all of the originally intended golf into the 300-acre north parcel of the property dedicated to the course.
That sealed the deal, and the Jones team was off and running in what Charlton calls “the biggest sand box any of us had ever gotten to work on.” What followed was a frenetic six months of detailed drawings, site visits, revisions, refinement and bid documents. Charlton, who has been at Jones’ side for 34 years, acknowledges that “municipal jobs are generally demanding in terms of paperwork, but that this one was in the top two or three we’ve ever done.” He describes sheet after sheet of two-foot by three-foot drawings and plans, together creating a roll eight-inches in diameter.
Only a handful of the holes first shown on the 18-hole alternative master plan survived the arduous review process. The clubhouse was moved to the southeast, the range moved out of a central core setting into a low, open area to the east, and room had to be found for a continuous three-mile walking trail that would weave through the golf course without interfering with play—or for that matter, be visible to golfers. Holding ponds, initially intended for the course, were dispensed with thanks to improved wastewater treatment technologies developed for the plant on the far south end of the entire property.
Ladenburg also made a crucial determination—to go with links-style fescue grasses that would emulate a traditional seaside layout, and with that, to abandon any paved cart paths and to rely upon a walking-only policy for play rather than one that catered to modern preferences for riders. Carts would have beaten fescue into submission. A walking policy, with the occasional concession to medically-certified golfers incapable of walking, would protect the notoriously traffic-intolerant grasses needed for a true links layout. KemperSports, the management firm that had been overseeing the all-fescue Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon since its inception in the late-1990s, knew that the virtual banning of carts would have serious financial implications for the Chambers Bay operation. But Ladenburg was insistent, and instead of being a liability, the emphasis upon walking became a defining element of the property.
An abundance of sand on site meant that there was plenty of available material for a fertile growing medium. But first the land had to be rough shaped into proper form. That required an army of bulldozers and pan scrapers—25 heavy pieces of machinery, all of it part of a construction contract awarded to Heritage Links, with Jones’ own shapers, Ed Tanno and Doug Ingram, leading on the all-important final massage work.
At times, the yearlong construction process looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The grading operation required a kind of ‘melting down’ of the entire northern rim by 10-25 feet, with the material then screened in massive sorting bins that were themselves holdovers from the old gravel site. The sandy material was tested for percolation rates and moisture retention, then used as capping for the areas to be grassed. Jones, watching as the elevation levels of the site evened out somewhat, likened it to “an acceleration of geological time.”
Rarely has a North American construction site made quicker progress from ugly to beautiful. An entire ridge was pushed through to make way for the 10th hole. Today, it looks like the hole was fitted into a natural box canyon, with just an opening at the far end to give a glimpse of Puget Sound behind the green.
In an effort to give the resulting mounds and knobs some element of rough, scruffy nature, track hoes plodded up and down them to imprint their tracks on the dirt; this had the double effect of creating a corduroy effect that would hold emergent turfgrass down as it germinated in the wind. The furrowing also made it look as if age-old erosion had already taken hold. Once the fescue took hold and started waving in the breeze, the entire site took on the feel of a classic links, one that had been there for decades.
Oh, those finicky fescues. Notoriously hard to establish and sustain, particularly in a cool-season, rainy environment. Interestingly, metro Tacoma, with 40 inches of precipitation a year, is closer to St Andrews (27 inches) than to Bandon, Oregon (59 inches) in the wet department. Specifications were precise and based upon test plots cultivated 20 miles to the east in Puyallup, Washington. Greens, fairways, tees and approaches were seeded to a mix of colonial bentgrass (6 percent), a three-way mix of chewings fescues (69 percent) and creeping red fescue (25 percent). Tallgrass roughs and sandy waste areas were planted with hard fescue (40 percent), sheep fescue (40 percent) and creeping red fescue (20 percent).
Fescues can be wonderful when established. Darin Bevard, director of championship agronomy for the USGA and the Green Section staffer responsible for coordinating maintenance standards for the U.S. Open, notes that “fescues require far less input of water and fertilizers than cool-season grasses like ryegrass or bentgrass. They also require less mowing.”
Of course fescues are noticeably susceptible to damage from traffic. At Chambers Bay that didn’t come from mechanical damage so much as from the wear and tear under foot from 35,000+ plus rounds, much of it in winter time when locals took advantage of favorable rates. The wear and tear was compounded by caddies—an additional two-to-four pairs of footsteps per foursome for the 10 percent of rounds where players opted for bag toters. There was the additional burden of approach and exit patterns around some greens that tended on occasion to funnel traffic through narrow passages—whether in defile-like form, through the 10th hole, or on some greens where the only path to the next tee was made narrow by steep falloffs to each side. Between traffic and weather, the result was some discernible decline in turf conditions heading into the spring.
Soon after opening, it was clear that high-impact areas would need some reworking. A few areas had to be massaged and green exits expanded. But the major course edits would await the 2010 U.S. Amateur, when USGA officials would see how the course played under championship conditions—a prelude to the U.S. Open five years later.
August isn’t June, and parched conditions of the U.S. Amateur (August) are far more severe in firmness and speed than the likely conditions of a U.S. Open (June). But it was clear from play on Chambers Bay during the 2010 Amateur that a few slopes had to be reworked. On a golf course that played extreme in its nearly dormant, dry, pinball wizard speed conditions, approach shots onto the first green were running off the left side and tumbling way away. And some shots hit to the uphill, seventh green (or back onto it from behind) were literally running down off the front and winding 100-150 yards away. More areas for spectator traffic would also be needed on course.
Davis, with an eye towards the U.S. Open, was intent upon creating an almost unparalleled degree of set up flexibility.
New teeing grounds on the first and 18th holes would allow these holes, running side-by-side in opposite directions, to be set up variously as a par-4 or as a par-5 on alternate days. The downhill par-3 15th hole got teeing grounds that enabled it to play from 123-to-246 yards. A new way-back tee on the downhill par-4 14th hole would enable it to play 546 yards—and from the highest point on the golf course looking out onto Puget Sound. And if the wind, prevailing out of the southwest, should prove too much for the 224-yard, par-3 ninth hole on a tee shot that dropped 100-feet to the green, Davis wanted the flexibility to play from an alternate platform aligned 90-degrees to the east that would be both more reasonable for play and more accessible to spectators.
Most of the this work, undertaken in 2012-13, was the kind of tweaking that is standard in the run-up to any U.S. Open—though the degree of set-up flexibility it facilitated was more than usual. Along the way, USGA officials, working with KemperSports and Pierce County officials, also wanted to guarantee better turf quality, and that required rebuilding two greens (the 10th and 13th) that had been particularly problematic all along. The result, as became evident coming out of the winter of 2015, has been much improved turf conditions and playability for everyday patrons of Chambers Bay as well as the likelihood of ideal conditions during the U.S. Open.
What viewers will see during the week of June 15-21 won’t be as austere as what players confronted during the 2010 U.S. Amateur. But it will be a golf course that in scale, slope, run out and flexibility will be beyond any other U.S. championship venue and more like an Open Championship.
Back in 2005, when the Jones group made its bid presentation for the golf course, team members came into the council room with badges ready made for the occasion that were handed out to the group. It showed the county logo, the name of the project (Chambers Creek, as it was called at first), and the words 2030 U.S. Open. A decade later, looking back, Ladenburg likes to say with a smile that they only got three things wrong with the gesture. “It was the wrong name, the wrong logo, and the wrong year for the U.S. Open.”
True enough. But they did get one thing right. A big one. The golf course.