Words by Jay Blasi
Photos by Jeff Marsh
Art by Thomas Young
Light / Dark
Going from rock quarry to paper mill to lumber company to sand and gravel mine to regional wastewater treatment plant to golf course is not the standard path for a U.S. Open host. But Chambers Bay has never followed the traditional route. Take the 16th hole: Designers considered turning its gorgeous spot along Washington’s Puget Sound into a clubhouse site or even the finishing hole. But in its final iteration, No. 16 became a history-making site in two USGA championships and one of the game’s great par 4s.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, programmers and computer scientists descended upon California’s Silicon Valley. The virtual gold rush was on, and Google, Apple and Facebook couldn’t hire enough young people. I graduated college and also went there to work for an industry leader, but my employer didn’t have a sprawling, shiny campus.
I reported to work at an old house with a creaky basement, orange carpet and a distinct aroma I’ll never forget. There were seven of us crammed into the design firm of Robert Trent Jones II. It was perfect.
Becoming a golf architect had been my dream job since I was a kid flipping over restaurant placemats to sketch holes in crayon. I was thrilled to get an interview with Jones’ firm, but it went nowhere near how I’d planned. With most of the staff traveling, I actually met with the man himself for a few minutes, which, considering he was on the road 200-plus days a year, was a surprise for both of us.
He asked who I was and where I was from. I told him I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. “You know, I designed the university course there,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I worked there in high school, competed in the state tourney there and, in college, I ‘designed’ a second course on the site.”
“I’d like to see that sometime,” he said.
I opened my portfolio and showed him the drawings. That sparked a nice back and forth. I made sure to get a photo with him, because I heard other candidates had actually met and even played golf with the full staff, so I figured I had no chance. Turned out that Bob didn’t hate me, and apparently he liked the fact that I was short; two guys in the office were 6’3″ and 6’6″.
I didn’t care how I landed my dream job; I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. Computers were just starting to get utilized in golf course architecture, and I would set up base maps and color plans, do earthwork calculations and basically anything else they asked. John Strawn, our CEO and business development guru, would come back from a trip and dump topographic maps on the table from Asia to Europe, and we would dig in on preliminary routings and feasibility studies.
That era was a high-water mark in terms of the number of golf courses getting built, and we were in the middle of it. Our office contained thousands of plans, sketches and documents, all available whenever I wanted to study them. The coolest library in golf.
In fall 2003, a potential project came along that was different from the others. Pierce County, Washington, was asking for proposals to reclaim an abandoned sand and gravel mine and turn it into a championship municipal golf course. The working title for the project was Chambers Creek.
The county’s formal process was complex and would require our full team. And for the first time, I would be part of the initial site visit.
The gravel pit
I poured myself into researching the Chambers Creek project. I reviewed every possible photo, map and write-up of the site. It was 600 stunning acres along the shores of Puget Sound, framed by the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. It had a railroad line along the property, boat access and the perfect sandy soil and climate to create a true links experience—a rarity in the U.S.
I thought I was prepared for anything when we first stepped onto the site in late December 2003. I was wrong. Stunning as the photos were, I was not ready for how the place made me feel. The enormity of it was unlike anything I had experienced: On the crest of the gravel mine, we could see for miles across the sound and its wooded islands. Peering down into the pit, the variety of landforms looked like giant children had started sandcastles, but run off halfway through. I dubbed it the world’s biggest sandbox.
Everything flipped when we reached the pit’s floor. We were staring up instead of down, but the scale was equally overwhelming. I was immediately reminded of walking onto the field at my alma mater’s Camp Randall Stadium and gawking at its mighty grandstands. What from above looked like little concrete blocks from the site’s mining infrastructure were revealed to be 40-foot walls. Landforms that appeared to be rolling dunes were 50-foot mountains of sand. Trees we thought were saplings were 70 feet tall.
The rest of the day was a workout, as we traversed massive sand stockpiles and searched for points to build around. Finally, we stopped at a haul road along the western boundary of the property, adjacent to the railroad tracks. It was the closest spot to Puget Sound and clearly a setting to maximize. The biggest question was how.
Chambers Creek originally called for 27 holes. It was one of the main site requirements from Pierce County, which also included a public hiking trail through the course connecting the existing paths near the property and accommodating roughly 40 acres of ponds and wetlands that would be designed to filter wastewater from the facility at the south end of the site.
This created our first problem:
The major takeaway from our visit was that while 27 holes could fit, 18 would yield a better course and a clearer path to their broader goal of a championship layout. We decided to give them what they requested, but also share our vision for the smaller layout.
In both versions, it was clear to us that to maintain a pure links experience, we had to separate the wetlands from the course rather than incorporate them. We decided that the northern 250 acres would house the golf course, with the wetlands serving as a buffer between it and the treatment facility. We also had the courses finish at the water, with the current 16th hole serving as the closer and the hiking trail and a clubhouse set just east, overlooking the green and Puget Sound (à la Pebble Beach).
To cap off our presentation and show them our belief in the site, we handed the committee bag tags with the Pierce County logo that read, “2030 U.S. Open—Chambers Creek.” We won the commission in spring 2004.
That launched a series of meetings with public officials, consultants and even public open houses to settle on our direction. Ultimately it was decided that the key to success was building the best 18 holes. Without that, nothing else would matter.
From there, it became clear that our original plan needed to change. We moved the clubhouse and parking areas inland to get more holes near the sound. This forced us to rearrange the routing, but that came about fairly easily. There were certain spots on the site—Nos. 6, 11 and 12—where the landforms left from the mining operation were ideal for golf. Still, we ended up moving roughly 1.5 million cubic yards of material to get the course we wanted.
That included a major-championship-worthy closing stretch. To create visual drama, we took a page from Whistling Straits in my native state of Wisconsin. Pete Dye’s team there developed a terracing concept that allowed more water views for different holes. By mimicking that process and knocking down a big berm on the western boundary of Chambers, we not only set up No. 16 so it was on the water, but also were able to grade the adjacent hole, No. 2, so their fairways connected and provided even more water frontage. Visual drama established, it was time to incorporate the excitement of shot- making into the hole.
The beauty of the 16th hole at Chambers Bay (Creek was officially changed to Bay before the course opened) is in its flexibility. It can play anywhere from 285 to 425 yards. In fall, winter and spring, winds from the southwest can make the back tees feel like it’s a 500-yard monster. In the summer, winds from the north can make the hole drivable. There are plenty of options off the tee, on the approach and around the green.
The fairway is purposely wide, and its connection with the second fairway gives players plenty of green grass to find off the tee. But if you want a chance for birdie, you must hug the right side—no easy trick, considering the visual intimidation of the water and the massive waste bunker that runs nearly the length of the hole. Approaching from the right side of the fairway has multiple advantages. First, the green and the trouble around it are in full view. Second, and more importantly, approach shots from the right have a wider area to land on the green and more room to run out.
Like most great holes, the green complex dictates the strategy at No. 16. The positioning of the green sets up different looks from different angles; the severity of the bunkers right and long left forces players to consider landing the ball short, but the fairway contours short and left of the green are capricious. While it looks like the safe place to miss, short left is actually the toughest recovery spot for good players; it takes a world-class shot to get a ball to the back hole location from there.
It has been a pleasure to see the strategic decisions we created at No. 16 play out in both USGA championships that have been hosted at Chambers Bay. It was where Peter Uihlein closed out David Chung to win the 2010 U.S. Amateur after Chung pulled his approach left and couldn’t recover. And in the final round of the 2015 U.S. Open, Branden Grace arrived at the 16th tee tied for the lead. He had trouble settling on a plan, finally deciding to attack the right side, and ended up hitting it out of bounds to sink his chances. Meanwhile, Jordan Spieth—along with his caddie, Michael Greller, who was a Chambers Bay looper prior to meeting Spieth—was the only player to properly read a putt from the front half of the green to the back hole location on Sunday. His birdie ultimately ended up proving to be the difference in his one-shot victory over Dustin Johnson.
On the scorecard, No. 16 is known as Beached for that long waste bunker along the right side. But from my first visit there through to the heroics of Uihlein, Greller and Spieth, I’ve always thought Dream Big is more appropriate.
Jay Blasi was the project architect at Chambers Bay for the Robert Trent Jones II design team and launched his own firm in 2012. His career work includes the Patriot Golf Club in Oklahoma, Stanford University’s Siebel varsity golf training complex and the Sentryworld Golf Club in Wisconsin.