Chambers Bay: Mining a muni gem

Chambers Bay along Puget Sound may be among the newest links courses, but it will host the 2015 U.S. Open

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — For decades it was a quarry, mined for sand and gravel, the operation cutting away the hillside overlooking the lower Puget Sound, leaving a scarred landscape behind.

So it’s a remarkable story that in the remnants of the quarry operation someone envisioned a golf course, except the vision only began there. The goal wasn’t simply a golf course but a $20.7 million championship golf course and, in fact, a venue with the potential to host the world’s greatest golf championship, the U.S. Open.

This is Chambers Bay, where a round of golf costs $205 in the summer (down to a weekday rate of $70 in December), where carts are prohibited and caddies encouraged, and where the golfer arrives to see the links-style course laid out below, hard upon Puget Sound, and in the distance, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains.

With its compelling views and equally compelling holes, Chambers Bay is a destination golf course a four-hour drive from Eugene, a course that conjures images of those in Ireland and Scotland and at Bandon Dunes — and, particularly, the latest addition to Bandon Dunes, Old Macdonald — except this golf course, southwest of Tacoma, exists adjacent to a major urban area.

And, oh, by the way, it’s a muni.

The golf course, which opened four years ago, is owned by Pierce County and operated by KemperSports, which also operates Bandon Dunes. Covering 230 acres, Chambers Bay exists within more than 900 acres of county-owned park land. A county bike path/walking trail goes through the golf course, unobtrusively; between the Sound and the course, railroad tracks carry Amtrak’s Coast Starlight run.

Here, in 2015, they’ll play the U.S. Open, the first time that major has been held in the Pacific Northwest. It will draw perhaps 60,000 spectators per day, numbers envisioned when Chambers Bay was designed by Robert Trent Jones II, just as the space for the infrastructure of a U.S. Open was envisioned as well — the corporate tents, grandstands, parking areas, maybe even a depot to drop off train passengers.

The impressive vision of Chambers Bay isn’t simply that Jones & Co. moved 1.4 million cubic yards of dirt to create a golf course that looks like it’s been there for 100 years, but that the course was intended to endure as a championship venue (and county revenue-producer) for a century and beyond.

“If you look at the Kingdome, it lasted 25 years, and then it’s gone,” said Blaine Newnham, the former Seattle Times sports columnist and Register-Guard sports editor who is a highly respected Northwest golf writer. “The same thing with Key Arena; 10 years after they remodeled it, it’s no longer acceptable for an NBA franchise.

“This thing, once the debt is paid, it’s going to bring in money and it’s going to be there forever.

“And it’s only going to get better. Pretty soon you’re going to be playing it, and you’re going to say ‘well, that’s where Rory McIlroy hit the shot to win the U.S. Open.’ It’s going to have a history to go along with its potential.”

History, and vision

In 1992, Pierce County paid $33 million to purchase 930 acres of land along Puget Sound for park purposes; roughly a decade later, the golf course was the vision of then-Pierce County administrator John Ladenburg, inspired by the decision of the U.S. Golf Association to award a U.S. Open to Bethpage Black, a municipal course on Long Island, N.Y.

From the beginning, Ladenburg pushed for a championship-caliber course. Newnham was among those who disagreed.

“I argued for more holes” — the site could have accommodated 27 — “and a municipal venue where lots of people could play golf for a reasonable price,” Newnham said.

But Ladenburg argued that the Pierce County area already had enough affordable golf courses open to the public; this would be a chance to create something special. From the beginning, the course positioned itself to host a U.S. Open, with the U.S. Golf Association involved throughout the design process. In February 2008, when Chambers Bay was awarded the U.S. Amateur, played last year, and U.S. Open, it had been in existence less than a year, and had already garnered international acclaim.

In 2008, in its first full year of operation, the course did almost 39,000 rounds of business, according to general manager Matt Allen of KemperSports, who attended Oregon for three years from 1992 through 1995 before leaving to take a job with the Oregon Golf Association.

This year, Allen projects the course to see 36,000 rounds, an improvement over 2010 in a tough economy. He figures that the 2008 numbers reflect “the most realistic target for full utilization of the course.” Unlike Bandon Dunes, with four courses and on-site lodging, where golfers make a commitment to play far in advance — and, once there, play through rain, if necessary — the rainy season takes a certain toll on play at Chambers Bay, said Allen, who started working for KemperSports at Bandon Dunes in February 1999 as golf operations manager and rose to assistant general manager before moving to Chambers Bay in March 2008.

Allen said the golf operation has “positive operating cash flow,” though Pierce County has been forced to make some inter-fund loans to help with the debt payment on the 30-year bonds sold to finance the course, with the debt scheduled to be retired in 2035.

Hunter George, communications director for Pierce County, said the county continues to believe its Chambers Bay investment to be well worth it and that it projects the course to be fully sustainable — that is, supporting both the golf operation and debt payments — in three or four years.

“It’s taking longer than we thought, but we feel we’re on a path to economic sustainability … that we’ll get to a point where it pays for itself, including the debt payments,” George said. “Based on our current projections, we think this will happen just before the Open, and we think after that it will operate in the black from then on.

“The Open will definitely be a turning point.”

The course

Northwest golfers who have played Bandon Dunes — and, particularly, Old Macdonald — will comprehend better than most what Chambers Bay is, and what it isn’t, and appreciate that there is beauty in greens that aren’t dark and soft.

“It doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor” of Bandon Dunes, Newnham said. “There aren’t the two or three holes by the Pacific. It doesn’t have the ‘going off to summer camp with the boys’ feel and the getting away.”

That being said, the course is visually wonderful in its own right, with the views of Puget Sound and nearby islands. The greens and fairways are firm, with fescue grass, and contoured and wide. There’s one tree on the course, behind the 15th green, and it isn’t in play, and that hole, a par 3 that plays down toward the Sound, is one of the most attractive, along with Newnham’s favorite, No. 10, a par 4, which plays through two dunes — man-made but seeming to have been there forever — toward the water and reminds him of Ballybunion in Ireland.

There are no forced carries, no out-of-bounds; if you can find your ball, and you usually can, within reason, you can play it, for better and worse. Which make this a championship venue where even a high-handicapper, playing from the proper tees, can get the ball around.

From the white tees, Chambers Bay plays to about 6,000 yards, and a par of 72; for the Open, it would play to about 7,700 yards, and a par of 71 or even 70. (This winter, several holes will be adjusted with the Open in mind, both in terms of how the course will play in the tournament, and how the crowds will be accommodated, based on the experience of hosting the U.S. Amateur last year.)

“The two things that strike me the most are how natural the course looks and feels in spite of the fact that it’s largely manufactured,” Allen said. “And secondly the fact that it’s a championship-caliber golf course at the highest level and yet so eminently playable day in and day out, and as such is unique even among the municipal or public access U.S. Open sites.

“Bethpage, Torrey Pines, Pinehurst, Pebble Beach, all of those are remarkably difficult to play. Now, someone will argue with me that Chambers Bay is plenty difficult to play, but it’s not difficult in the penalty stroke and lost-ball sense. You have a chance, all the time. I don’t know another golf course that can and is going to host a U.S. Open and yet is so fair and so playable day in and day out.”

Newnham, who has written numerous articles about Chambers Bay, and who has played the Bandon Dunes courses and many in Ireland and Scotland, put it this way:

“I think it’s most comparable to Old Macdonald, and I think I actually like it better. … The appeal is in the whole thing. You can almost see every hole from every other hole. Sure, Pebble Beach is more stunning when you look at certain spots of it, but in terms of the amount of view that there is there, I can’t think of any place that has that, and no place in Europe that I’ve seen.”

The Open

For the Open, scheduled June 18-21 in 2015, with the potential for rain and wind and devilish pin placements, the course will be a rigorous test for the best golfers in the world, and a compelling infomercial.

In awarding the U.S. Open to such a young golf course, the USGA demonstrated its desire to place the championship in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, as well as its support of the unique agronomy of links golf and of courses the public can play.

“I don’t think people understand the significance of it, yet, and they won’t understand until it happens,” Newnham said. “This is clearly the biggest sporting event ever held in the Northwest, and unless the economy continues to fall apart, there are going to be 60,000 people a day out there, which is more than they’ve ever had. It has the potential to be the most well-attended U.S. Open in history.”

George, the Pierce County spokesman, notes that a San Diego State study of the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines placed the local economic impact at $140 million, and suggested that would be the starting point for the bigger-scope Open at Chambers Bay.

This month, Pierce County released the logo for the Open, to be used on merchandise and publicity starting now. And Allen said he expects the relationship between Chambers Bay and the USGA to continue well beyond the 2015 U.S. Open.

“The USGA has made it quite clear through the investments they’re making and had always contemplated making in their contract with Pierce County that they wouldn’t be making them if it was their goal to just come here once,” he said.

Now, that’s a vision, and vision.

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