Sound and Vision: The Birth of Chambers Bay
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
This story originally appeared in the official program of the 2015 U.S. Open. To view additional content in the digital version of the program, click here.
Bruce Charlton ignored the reproachful looks from his wife and daughter and took the phone call from Pierce County, Wash. It was early 2004, and the Charltons were on vacation in Hawaii. Moments later, daughter Casey was convinced her father had gone crazy as he performed multiple backflips off the diving board.
“I told them, we just got Chambers Bay!” recalled Charlton, the president and chief design officer for Robert Trent Jones II, LLC. “Chambers Bay had a feel to it all the way through that it was going to be something special. We knew what the site could do.”
If anything, Charlton underestimated the possibilities. The course opened in 2007, and within eight months, in an unprecedented move, the USGA awarded it both the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open. The unique site – and the dramatic design by Robert Trent Jones Jr., Charlton and associates – had accomplished what they thought it could.
“I’ll never forget my first visit,” said Jay Blasi, who started at the Jones firm in 2001 and worked on Chambers Bay from the proposal phase through the course’s completion. “The scale of the property is what blows people away. The quarry was so vast, with unobstructed views across Puget Sound and Mount Olympus off to the west. We started to think about the possibilities.”
Where course designers saw enormous potential, others saw the remnants of an abandoned sand and gravel mine – among the nation’s largest – with its work sheds, wash ponds and assorted detritus. The history of the site, as documented in the book “America’s St. Andrews” by Blaine Newnham, also includes an ancient fishing village established by Native Americans, the Steilacoom tribe, as well as lumber mills, a paper mill and a railroad hub.
The property’s enormous sand and gravel deposits were first harvested in earnest in the 1890s, when they were employed in the construction of three concrete forts, strategic bulwarks at the northern entrance of Puget Sound. The materials – which came to be known and valued by builders as “Steilacoom grade” – were later used to create countless structures and highways, while also providing a fitting prelude to the site’s current use.
“Material for golf course construction and maintenance came from this pit for decades, to nearly every course in a 250-mile radius,” said Charlton. “We said, well, we ought to be able to grow grass on it.”
The Jones firm was one of 57 to submit bids to build a course for Pierce County, which had acquired the property in 1992, although mining operations continued until 2003. That is when the site became a reclamation project, and the remnants of the enormous gravel sorting bins alongside the 18th hole stand as a reminder of its decades of industrial use.
The original RFP from Pierce County called for a 27-hole layout spread across nearly 300 acres, and the field of potential architects was culled to five finalists in late 2003. Jones, Charlton and their associates from RTJ II dutifully drafted a 27-hole routing, with a wrinkle – an alternate plan with just 18 holes.
“In order to even be considered, you have to fulfill the requirements of the RFP,” said Charlton. “But after we explained how the 27-hole plan would work, we unveiled our 18-hole plan.”
Charlton shared RTJ II’s vision of a “world-class experience,” a golf course that could land on magazine covers and host important championships. “If you really want to catch the world’s eye, then 18 holes is the way to go,” he concluded. RTJ II ended its presentation by passing out bag tags marked “2030 U.S. Open.”
The Jones team left the room exhilarated, yet perplexed. Of the dozen or so officials in attendance, John Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive, was the driving force behind the golf course. They studied him, but got no reaction from the former county prosecutor.
“He did not crack a smile – he was completely poker-faced,” said Charlton. “We came out of the room asking each other what was up with him. Little did we know that everything we were saying was exactly what he wanted to hear. We were right in John Ladenburg’s wheelhouse.”
RTJ II landed the contract – for an 18-hole course.
There was reason to dream: Bethpage Black, at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, had just hosted the 2002 U.S. Open – the first publicly owned and operated facility to host the championship. Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, a municipal course, had recently been awarded the 2008 Open, its first. Though the bag tags that Blasi handed out elicited some chuckles, 2030 seemed a realistic goal – except, perhaps, to Ladenburg.
“John kept telling us, the danger isn’t to aim high and fail, the danger is to aim too low and succeed,” said Blasi, who began his own design firm in 2012. “The real turning point for the project was John’s decision to make it a walking-only course. Allowing golf carts would have drastically compromised the design of the course, and very likely the ability to host the U.S. Open.”
It was not an easy call: the county would be forgoing as much as one-third of potential revenue by banning the use of carts. Charlton later noted that the siting of as many as six greens would have been affected had cart paths been required, and carts would have also precluded using the preferred fescue grasses, which do not tolerate the accompanying wear and tear.
Their mandate established, Jones and Charlton went to work. It was not a typical site, nor a standard project.
“There has been a lot of talk of minimalism in course design over the last 20 years,” said Blasi. “The idea is to find what’s inherently special about the property and do whatever you can to highlight and accentuate that. Think of Sand Hills in Nebraska, where Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s job was to let the course fall onto the land and capitalize on its features.”
That wasn’t Chambers Bay, despoiled by a huge parking lot and several abandoned buildings in the wake of its industrial heyday.
“There were wonderful water views, ideal sandy soil and nice elevation changes, but we had to move 1.5 million cubic yards of material to create what is there today,” said Blasi.
“We were literally like kids in the sandbox,” said Charlton, who has worked with Jones since 1981. “We took this bluff next to Puget Sound and terraced it. We dug down – in some cases up to 42 feet – and created golf holes right next to Puget Sound. Then we ran parallel and perpendicular holes above them, so that those holes felt like they touched Puget Sound. We got a double bang for the buck.”
The effect was that holes such as Nos. 3, 5, 11 and 14 “feel like they’re touching the water, even though some of them are 300 or 400 feet away,” said Charlton. “It’s like we created two horizon lines.”
A few of the holes, at least, were there waiting to be discovered. Charlton described a site visit on which the architects climbed atop a bluff and found a valley, the perfect width of a fairway, with an ideal green site tucked between two land forms left by the mining operation. He looked at his cohorts and said, “Ballybunion!”
“All we did was skim away the ridgeline of sand between the tee and the landing area, and voila, we had a golf hole,” he said. It became No. 10, a medium-length par 4 that is nicknamed “High Dunes.”
The par-4 sixth hole, which the USGA’s Mike Davis likens to No. 13 at Muirfield in Scotland, features a green in an amphitheater left by the operations. The bunkers to the right of the fairway, which Jones dubbed “coffin bunkers,” sit in a hollow where gravel was once washed and screened.
“Another one is No. 12,” said Charlton. “That was the old haul road where trucks entered and left the quarry. We just widened it a bit, kept the height of the dunes on both sides and crafted a drivable par 4 through it.”
Chambers Bay is not simply a walking course – it’s a walking test, and the architects were mindful of making it so.
“The site has 200 feet of elevation change, and we worked very hard to make the golfer aware of that,” Charlton said. “We believe that golf is a mental game, but it also has some physical endurance aspects to it. We routed the course so that you had to climb to the top of the elevation on both nines – actually, you have to do it twice on the front nine. Eighteen holes of competitive golf is draining – throw the endurance factor into it and that makes for a pretty strong test.”
Blasi fell short at local qualifying in his attempt to play in the 2015 U.S. Open, which would have allowed him to compete in the national championship on a course he helped design. “It’s a pipedream, but it’s one worth shooting for,” said Blasi, who got married on the 15th tee at Chambers Bay shortly before the U.S. Amateur in 2010. He still plans to be on hand for the Open on a layout that Jones, who dabbles in poetry when he is not crafting courses, likes to refer to as “golf art.”
“There are only a few places across America that truly capture a golfer’s soul – places like Bandon Dunes,” said Blasi. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Chambers Bay is special because it really is links golf, not some watered-down American version of it. We were very fortunate to have a team that was all on the same page and willing to go for it.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.