ASGCA President Steve Smyers writes, “The staging of the 2015 U.S. Open championship at Chambers Bay attracted a tremendous amount of attention and courted no small degree of controversy. It certainly generated a great deal of discussion among the board of the ASGCA.”
(The following article was written by ASGCA President Steve Smyers)
“Variety is not only ‘the spice of life’ but it is the very foundation of golfing architecture. Diversity in nature is universal. Let your golfing architect mirror it. An ideal or classical golf course demands variety, personality and, above all, the charm of romance”. Charles Blair McDonald
This quote, alongside several others from the forefathers of our profession, hangs on a wall in my office. Their purpose is to continually remind me of what makes our game so special – and why golf courses are both criticized and loved by all who play the sport.
The staging of the 2015 U.S. Open championship at Chambers Bay attracted a tremendous amount of attention and courted no small degree of controversy. It certainly generated a great deal of discussion among the board of the ASGCA. As members of our association traveled across the country we encountered comments that were both complimentary and critical: these comments were directed at the design of the course; its set-up and conditioning; the grass selection for the playing surfaces; spectator viewing areas, as well as the new format of televising the event.
The USGA determined to make two bold moves: for the first time in its history it took our nation’s championship to the Pacific Northwest, and for the first time in 45 years the event was contested on an ostensibly ‘new’ golf course. Chambers Bay, designed by two ASGCA Past Presidents, Bobby Jones and Bruce Charlton, occupies a spectacular site adjacent to Puget Sound. The creation of the course is itself a great story of how a golf development revitalized a distressed parcel of land and an economically stagnant area. In another ‘first’, fescue grasses were utilized across the entire golf course, and most notably on the putting surfaces.
It was an historically significant week as the USGA was breaking with some very time-honored traditions in not staging the country’s premier event at an already established ‘old school’ type venue. For the past several years, the Open course set-up has typically followed a formula of narrow verdant fairways, thick punitive rough, and ultra-slick and ultra-smooth putting greens. This year’s championship exposed to millions a quite different way that the game can be played and also a different version of how good golf courses can be designed and maintained – and indeed how very differently they can look.
In all that I have read, studied and experienced about the game of golf – and specifically as regards course design – heated debate has seemingly always accompanied the unveiling of a cutting edge design and/or its hosting of an important tournament. Pine Valley was declared to be Crump’s folly by many who first visited his innovative masterpiece. And I remember Jerry Pate throwing Pete Dye into the lake at the conclusion of the inaugural Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass – Dye’s novel and original ‘stadium’ layout not being to the taste of the majority of the competitors. Since that first event, Sawgrass has been somewhat refined but it is essentially the same layout and is now one of the PGA Tour’s most popular and esteemed venues. And you can go further back, too: the putting surfaces on Donald Ross’ renowned Pinehurst #2 Course confounded most contestants in the 1935 PGA Championship, with many wondering (and complaining) how a ball could land so close to the hole and yet end up in such an awkward place.
As an architect and a golfer who enjoys both the competitive and recreational aspects of the game, I can usually find something that makes me feel uncomfortable with a golf course or a tournament set-up – ‘uncomfortable’ simply because it is unfamiliar and not what I am accustomed to. Whenever I feel this way, I remind myself of how the legendary Bobby Jones reacted on his first visit to St. Andrews where he stormed off the links and vowed never to return. Of course Jones did return (and conquer the links) several times, and in a speech in 1958 at the University of St. Andrews he recounted the story of his first visit. He then revealed how over a passage of time he had grown to love the Old Course stating that “The more he studied it, the more he loved it, and the more he loved it, the more he studied it.”
The distinctive nature of this year’s U.S. Open put a spotlight on how diverse and captivating this game of golf can be. By highlighting such a style of venue, and contrasting it to the great and established championship courses such as Merion, Oakmont and Winged Foot, it triggered widespread discussion regarding some very fundamental aspects of the game – the way it’s played, the way courses are designed and the way they are maintained, and this is surely a healthy thing?
If we can create bold, imaginative and innovative designs we will capture people’s interest and encourage them to do precisely what Donald Ross invited them to do all those years ago and “rise to the challenge of the course.”