Chambers Bay

7,547 yards, 142 slope from the Championship tees

Course:  Chambers Bay is near Tacoma, WA, which is about 45 minutes south of Seattle.  Geographically, the course sits below the coastal cliffs and extends up to the coast line of Puget Sound.  The land used to be a sand and gravel mine and you see remnants of that throughout the course, but most prevalently in the bunkers, where the sand from the mine is used.  The course was designed by my new buddy, Robert Trent Jones, II, who was hired by Pierce County to build a course on the spectacular piece of land.  It opened in 2007, but has already earned the 2010 U.S. Amateur Open and amazingly, will host the 2015 U.S. Open.  It is also ranked number 13 on Golf Magazine’s top 100 courses you can play.

View of the course from the top of the cliff

View of the Eighteenth and Puget Sound.  Behind the far clouds is Mt. Olympus.  

Chambers Bay is indeed a special place.  It is pure links golf and is walking only.  RTJ2 realized that cart paths would inhibit the natural setting and strategic forms of many of the holes, as a lot of the greens are walled in by natural contoured mounds.  In addition, he was able to use fescue, bent grass and sandy soils, which allow the course to play fast, just like you get in Scotland.  Carts would ruin the grass pretty quickly, so they are able to maintain that links feel.  Although the fairways are fast, the greens are some what slow, which actually allows you to get aggressive with your approach shots, including my good ole bump and run.  It mostly allows creativity around the greens, so long as you don’t get pinned in one of the many nasty bunkers lurking about.  Aside from the unique feel without the golf carts and paths, there are vast waste areas, severe elevation changes, and long grass off fairway.  The contoured mounds also form a lot of the holes and create some narrow openings and landing areas.  The weather is volatile.  In early July, I showed up in pants and a windbreaker, and went from freezing cold to way too hot, some times all on the same hole.  In addition to its extraordinary links play, Chambers is also heralded for its versatility.  Someone like me can go out there and have a challenging yet nice round while players much better than me can also have the same experience, and even those worse than me can as well.  The tee system here is top notch and the its skill accessibility is unusual for a course of this stature.  For all of these reasons and many more, the course has been collecting accolades, and majors, since it opened merely five years ago.

It was more than a year ago that I realized I would be in the area and almost immediately I looked up how far away Chambers Bay was from Seattle.  The course has enjoyed considerable positive reviews for its pure links lay out, which has been a rarity for public golf.  Many of the great links courses in the
U.S. are private and exclusive.  This includes Shinnecock and National.  There was some what of a revival of public links golf courses though, with Whistling Straits in 1998, nearby Erin Hills in 2006, and more recently on the west coast with a group of courses in Bandon OR, which includes Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails and the very new Old MacDonald.  The Bandon courses were a discovery of the Pacific Northwest as great links country.  Its pure designs and focus on walking drew unexpected popularity, which gave rise to the area’s Old MacDonald, which debuted last year as the 10th best course you can play by Golf Magazine.  Chambers Bay followed the initial Bandon courses, as the local area realized they had identical elements to Bandon.  In fact, it doesn’t take much to find a debate on whether Chambers Bay or the Bandon courses offer a better links experience.  I haven’t played the Bandon courses and they’re on my bucket list.  All I can say is that if they’re anything like Chambers Bay, I think everyone wins.

At any rate, I made all the arrangements to make sure I was able to play here when I was in town.  On an early weekday morning, I made my way to the course from Seattle.  Once you arrive, there are no elaborate gates or signs or even a big clubhouse greeting you.  In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was at the right place.  There is parking and a little sign, but it was unclear whether that sign was telling you that you were actually in Chambers Bay the park, city, etc.  There is a smallish building that looked like a clubhouse, so I made my way inside.  The pro shop is off to one side of the building and boasts one of the best views from any clubhouse I’ve seen, as the back window frames the course and Sound below.  There is a grill room on the other side of the building.  A modest set up, but I imagine that’s the point.  You come here for the golf.

Shuttles take you down the bluff to the driving range and practice area.  When you’re done there, a shuttle takes you to the first hole, which also has a small clubhouse to get food and drinks.

Practice area

I had time before I teed off, so I hit some balls to warm up.  I was hitting well and was getting excited about the round.  I then went over to the short game practice area to sharpen my wedges up when I got a real bad case of the shanks.  It was maddening.  I immediately went to the putting green to calm down, then went back to the range, as I usually need to hit my driver a few times to get over the S word.  It wasn’t working and my tee time was getting close, so I left in a panic to the first tee.  I mean, I had been waiting for months for this round and my game had been solid for the last couple months.  How could this possibly happen now, of all things?  Unbelievable.

I should mention this was also was the first round I was going to have a caddie.  I had a forecaddie at Coure d’Alene, but this would be my first with a looper solely dedicated to my game.  For some reason, I was more concerned about playing crappy in front of him than anything else.  So in that frame of mind, me and and the rest of the foursome, including a guy playing from the tips who crushed his first the shot, I promptly shanked not one, but two shots off the tee.  I then shanked my second shot, at which point I suggested that I should probably adjourn my round once I had some time with the club pro.  What happened next profoundly changed how I approach golf and the round turned into one of the best golf experiences I’ve had.

Before I get to that, I’ll tell you about the first hole, which is 436 yards from the Whites and a par 4.  You tee off towards Puget Sound, then club uphill with an assortment of mounds scattered about and a steep drop off on the left.  The green is enormous, but undulates and is multi -tiered.

First hole, with the green straight ahead

It was at this point that my caddie wouldn’t let me leave the course.  He explained how he caddies part time on the PGA tour, gets along pretty well as a golfer in his own right and could tell that I wasn’t even the highest handicapper in our group.  He also promised that after the round, I would be a better golfer and appreciate the game more.  That all sounded good and well, but I didn’t think it was likely.  We then found my shanked ball in some long grass, which is actually in the above picture.  He gave me a 7 iron, told me to hit an inch behind it and swing as slow as I could.  I did and that ball flew straight to the green.  I started believing right away.  He then told me exactly what to do on the next shot, then read my putts perfectly.  A snow man to start out with, but things were looking up.

The Second is another par 4, but much shorter at 337 yards (all my yardages are from the Whites).  There is trouble on both the left and right and the preferred tee shot ends up short for a nice approach.  The right side of the green is blocked by a mound formation while there are bunkers left.  My caddie yet again guided me through the hole unscathed for a double.  Ok, not ideal but I was feeling better and starting to hit better and that was the important thing.

The Second

Another angle of the Second.  A lot of the apparent trouble in the first photo is now gone, once you get to the right side of the hole.

The Third is the first par 3 and was at 130 yards.  But there is a lot of wind coming off the Sound and a LOT of trouble left and short of the green.  You have some bailout room right, but not much.  I felt like checking out what all the fuss was about with those huge bunkers on the left and collected another double.  I just got cocky and went for the pin.  So it goes.

The Third.  Notice the difference in clouds from hole to hole.  The weather was that volatile.

The Fourth is probably one of my favorite holes ever.  I’ve never seen anything like it and the visual intimidation is palpable.  It’s only 424 yards as a par 5, but it’s all uphill and you got a lot of wind going.    I started to calm down by then and even though the driver was at least now getting me in the fairway, I wasn’t getting the distance I’m used to.  My caddie got me to all the right places on this once for my first par of the day.  But really, I loved this hole so much I could have cared less if it was par or double par.  The hole “ascends” and dog legs right, with major trouble on the right and a narrow fairway snaking up to the green.  The green sits atop a plateau and bunkers are right and long of the green.  As you’re walking the hole, the green looks like it’s a mile away.  You feel like you’re hitting your ball into oblivion, yet some how manage to club the hole in a couple strokes.  I took a bunch of pictures of this hole.

The Fourth.  Aptly named, “Hazard’s Ascent.”

A better look at the trouble to the right on the Fourth

As I’m walking up the hole.  One of the guys in my foursome had a medical exemption for that cart.  His caddie had to drive though.

On the green looking back to the tee at the Fourth.  

What goes up must come down, which is also the case here and the Fifth, which take you way back down the bluff for a spectacular tee shot overlooking the Sound.  It’s 423 yards and a par 4.  There’s a generous fairway and a generous green, but there is a deep bunker on the left side of the green that can be dangerous.  Playing towards the Sound again is nice as well and we were battling rain this hole, which promptly stopped once we went to the Sixth.

Tee shot at the Fifth.  Yes those are rain drops.

The green at the Fifth with the meddling bunker hiding, waiting for an ambush

The Sixth is another par 4 at 315 yards.  The fairway is generous, but then dog legs right with lots of trouble on the right to a green that narrows and is slightly uphill and surrounded by mounds.  Stay away from the right at all costs.  I some how managed to hit my ball on top of one of the mounds, which made for a steep climb with my caddie.  I couldn’t help but ask my caddie if he had ever been up there before, to which he replied that no, this was a new one.  Glad I could oblige.

The Sixth.  The larger mound on the left is where I dragged my caddie.

The Seventh is a 415 yard par 4 that starts to climb back up the bluff.  The hole dog legs right, with a vast desert (bunkers) on the right.  You have to decide how much you want to take off the dog leg with your tee shot, which gives you a nice risk/reward situation.  There’s a mound that splits the fairway about 100 yards from the green, then the green is set into the hillside.  My caddie guided me to another par here.  I was starting to fall in love.

The tee at the Seventh.  

The Eighth runs along the top of the course and is the closest hole to the bluff from what I could tell.  You have a great view of the course and the Sound for the entire hole.  It’s a par 5 about 488 yards and is the number one handicapped hole on the course.  Probably because the fairway is quite narrow, so anything not long and straight probably means you’re playing for bogie or worse.  The hole snakes a little, but is straight for the most part.  Anything off to the sides is probably dead, as the left has a steep cliffside and the right severely drops off.  My tee shot leaked to the right, but my best friend (caddie) taught me a nice shot to get out of the long grass I was in and I salvaged a bogie.  It was at this point I started wondering how I could hire this guy for every round I played.  10% of any skins I pick up?

Tee shot at the Eighth.  Not a lot of room to play with here.

View of the course from the Eighth fairway.  Very surreal looking at everything from this point.

The Ninth is a par 3 that goes downhill, shooting towards the Sound.  I love those holes where you’re hitting into a great view.  Many have said that golf is the only time you get to interact with art and any time I come up to a tee shot with a great view, hitting that pure tee shot some how makes it better.  The green rolls down the hill side and the wind is a big factor.  My caddie handed me a club I thought might too much, but the wind was really whipping, until I actually hit the shot.  The wind stopped and my ball sailed, hitting the back side of the green and bouncing off the rear about 30 feet down.  I didn’t care, mainly because I hit a good shot, was enjoying myself and was starting to hit it well again.  My caddie had yet another shot for me to hit to get me back on the green on my second shot, which worked perfectly, for another bogey.

The Ninth

A closer look at the Ninth

There was not a weak hole on the front 9, and many were actually all world caliber.  Ranking them, I guess I would go 4, 5, 9, 1, 8, 7, 6, 3, 2.

As this was my first time golfing with a caddie, I was googling like crazy during the round on how much to tip, proper etiquette, etc.  One of the things I didn’t know which I’m glad I found out is that it’s a nice gesture to ask the caddie if he wants anything to eat or drink at the turn.  My caddie politely declined, but I’m just putting it out there since I had no idea and I’ve been golfing for 13 years.  I’m also used to ready golf, so kept lining up my putt before my caddie had a chance to read it for me.  I’d also grab the flag stick early in the round to speed things up.  Those things are basically the caddie’s domain, so stay away.  Take that time to enjoy the view, practice your stroke, etc.

I also learned another lesson on the player-caddie relationship on the Tenth.  The Tenth was another one of my favorite holes on the course and can’t wait to see the pros play it in a few years.  It’s a par 4 about 330 yards, but the approach and green funnel into a group of mounds uphill, and once you get to the green, you are totally enclosed by said mounds.  There is also a deep bunker on the right of the green.  I had a great tee shot into the wind that left me with about 90 yards to the green.  My caddie handed me one club, but I felt more comfortable with another, so asked him for that one.  I mean, I just thought I hadn’t played the club I was asking for yet, so he had no way of knowing how I hit it.  And after over clubbing me on the Ninth, I thought maybe I should exercise a little more discretion with the club selection.  Of course I mis hit it into the bunker and instead of a bird, ended up with a double.  I was miffed and after letting me cool down a little, my caddie started walking next to me, smiling.  Then I started laughing and he said, “Never waive me off a club again (jokingly).”  I told him I didn’t realize that was big breach and he just joked again, saying I could have had birdie on one of the tougher holes on the course.  I promised never to stray again.

The Tenth.  I was beyond those two balls with my tee shot, all for naught however.

A closer look at the Tenth.  You can see my ball further up on the hill, just before the big club selection controversy

The Eleventh is a 400 yard par 4.  The green is elevated and protected by a hillside with a bank to the right and drop off to the left.  The approach makes it a tough hole for sure.  The Twelfth is another par 4, similar to the Tenth except the entire hole runs between two dunes and is quite narrow.  There are cross bunkers that also challenge any tee shot that tries to carry the green, as you’re only 250 out albeit downhill from the hole.  My caddie had me hit it to safe ground off the tee, which gave me a very manageable approach for a par.  This hole is only 300 yards even from the tips, so it’s reachable for the pros, but the green is undulating and tough, for good reason.  It will be tough to read or lag to the pin.  Another one to look forward to for the U.S. Open.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a par 5 almost 500 yards that dog legs right.  It reminded me of the Seventh because of the bunkers that are on the inside of the dog leg, but the hole is longer and the green is set up hill.  The bunkers really don’t come into play until your second shot.  The hole is great because you can play it a thousand different ways depending on where you decide to place your tee and second shots.  After a nice tee shot I promptly hit my second into that bunker, but salvaged a bogey after an up and down from some real nasty rough behind the green and a putt that went over two mounds, double broke and was about 50 feet away.  One of the guys in my foursome remarked how me and my caddie made a great team.  You got that right.  Time to come up with a pitch to get him back East.

Second shot at the Thirteenth

The Fourteenth takes you back down the bluff with another great down hill tee shot.  The vast bunker area is now to the left of the tee area and there is a bunker towards the middle of the fairway that will give you a lot of roll if you manage to hit your tee shot over it.  Left continues to be dead as you proceed down the fairway and there is bail out room on the right.  You can also get a nice little bump and run going to the hole, so really, just stay to the right and hit a good tee shot.  As with most of the holes here, anything in the air off too much to one side or the other will be gone.

Tee shot at the Fourteenth

The green at the Fourteenth

View of most of the course from the Fourteenth fairway

The Fifteenth is the shortest par 3 on the course, at about 100 yards.  The tee shot stares down the only tree on the course, aptly named, “Lone Fir.”  It’s a downhill shot facing the Sound, with a bunker waste land in front of the green, then bunkers left and in the rear.  The wind makes this a tough hole, but if it’s down it is the easiest hole on the course.  The scenery around the hole is great, as you start getting real close to the Sound.  On this hole, I got into the rear bunker, but didn’t worry about it, as my caddie gave me a few swing tips on how to get out, which worked like a charm.  Confidence was riding high.

The Fifteenth.  Great view except for that ugly mug taking up too much of the screen.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth play along the Sound.  There’s a railroad track running between the course and coast as well, which adds to the ambiance if a train happens to roll by.  The Sixteenth is a par 4 about 320 yards.  There is a steep drop off into a waste area along the right side of the hole while the left side banks the entire way to the green.  The approach shot here is tricky, as there is a very steep bunker long and left while visually, it appears the green drops off into the Sound.  That makes you want to short it, but the slope hides how much fairway you have, creating a false front.  I was able to play up the left center and than had a great read for a bump and run to get close to the pin for my par.

The Sixteenth

Second shot territory at the Sixteenth

The Seventeenth is the second par 3 on the back 9, playing about 140 yards.  It reminded of one of the par 3’s you’d see at Whistling Straits, which apparently is pretty common, according to my caddie.  The wind definitely comes into play here, as well as the left to right slope.  Of course, there are bunkers surrounding the green, with the most prevalent on the right side.  Also, there is no room on the right, so anything too far over there doesn’t even hit the bunkers, it’s just OB.  The green is fairly large, so really you need to get your distance down and then deal with putting over all the undulations.  I hit long here, but recovered for a bogey after another up and down from a bunker.  My day was already made and I was some how hopping there were another set of, “secret” 18 holes we were going to play next.  Instead, we headed to the Eighteenth, which heads back up the bluff to the clubhouse.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a great finishing hole and another one I can’t wait to see in play at the U.S. Open.  I hope that the tournament is on the line come Sunday at this hole.  It’s a par 5 about 500 yards and uphill.  The tee area is next to remnants of the old granary building, which I thought was a nice touch leaving it there, similar to the ruins of Bruce’s castle at Turnberry.  The large bunkers on both sides define the fairway and come into play for your tee shot.  These large bunkers are scattered down the hole, but continue to the green.  There is also a large, steep coffin bunker right in the middle of the fairway about 100 yards from the green to catch those who are trying to sneak up the green or go for it in 2.   The green slopes from back to front and there is a large bunker complex on the right side of the green.  I imagine we’ll see the pin on the right side of the green, forcing players to carry that bunker to a tight landing area.  I happily took my bogey here.

Tee shot at the Eighteenth.  The old building is on the right.

Walking up the fairway of the Eighteenth

Approach shot at the Eighteenth.  The coffin bunker is that scar in the fairway.

A close up of the coffin bunker.  Good luck with that.

A portion of the green.  You can see the ripples from here.  

For the back 9, again there were no weak holes.  Ranking them with a gun to my head, I’d go 18, 10, 17, 15, 16, 12, 14, 13, 11.

Personally, this was the best golf experience I’ve ever had.  Golf is a volatile game to say the least and I went from sheer panic on the first tee to completely relaxed and confident by the end of the round, just enjoying the course, the scenery and the golf without worrying about my score.  And the funny thing is I started to play better.  I came away with a profound appreciation of the game and what can happen when you’re at the right place with the right company and in the right frame of mind.  My caddie was right; I came away a better golfer, not because I’m gonna start breaking 80, but because I remembered that the game is about a lot more than how far back you’re turning your shoulders or whether you’re releasing the club too soon.  As I was walking down that first fairway, trying to analyze the thousand different reasons I couldn’t hit it, my caddie told me, “Who f-n cares?  You’ll never see any of these people again.  Play like you don’t care where the ball goes. ”  There was something very liberating about that.

Of course, it’s about a lot more than coming out of a swing funk.  Objectively, the course was excellent in many different ways.  Its versatility is refreshing.  Yes it’s versatile because of its accessibility to golfers of many skill levels, yet it’s also versatile for the various ways the holes make you play shots.  There are some holes that let you air it out, some where you have to carry the green, while others you can decide to carry or run it.  Hazards come in many forms and aren’t just limited to a dominant theme.  You have wind, bunkers, dunes, long grass, mounds and undulations, all forcing you to adjust in different ways.  That makes course management vital here.  You can also get creative with your shots, which is what links golf is all about.  When you combine that with the views and serenity of the place, you get something pretty special.  Every hole was distinct and well done.  The par 3’s were great one shotters, the par 5’s presented different challenges and required different plays and the par 4’s had world class character.  Walking the course also immersed you in the design and made you appreciate the nuances much more.  With the weather, there’s a good chance the U.S. will look a lot like the British Open.  Wind and rain could be a big factor here, which would make for a much different major than a typical U.S. Open.  I think the venue will be a challenging and interesting track and the USGA seems to agree, as they have already had the 2010 US Amateur here and decided to have the US after being open for only eight years (at the time it’ll be played).

Obviously, I’m going to mention my experience with a caddie.  I highly recommend playing with one here, especially with all of the said nuances and challenges you’ll face, including the wind, where they will be a tremendous help.  As it was my first time with a caddie, I liked having his expertise helping me through the round.  He knew when to talk about something else to take my mind off a bad shot or what to say to get the right swing out of me.  I also felt a certain amount of calm if I got into trouble, because I knew he would find the ball and where and how I should hit my next shot to get back into position.  I don’t know about the whole, keep up and shut up mantra with caddies; mine definitely made the difference between a good or bad round and I’m glad I got paired up with him.  His name was Pat and he is one of the senior guys there, as he loops part time on the Tour as well.  I like to think the staff saw me shanking my wedge and called up their ace caddie to make sure I didn’t throw myself in the Sound.  I could see that happening actually.  At any rate, Pat saved my round of the summer.

This course is golf the way it should be.

Gripes:

Clubhouse:  Nice.  They have a nice selection of hats and shirts, shoes and clubs.  And the best view ever.

Bar/grill:  Also understated and nice.  Great view and patio outside with the view as well.  There’s a hut down at the first tee that has a fully stocked bar and food, which gives you enough good stuff before and during the round.

Nearby:  Tacoma I guess.  The object of the game here though is to stay at the course as long as possible.

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