For 2010 Veterans, Experience is Best Teacher

Morgan Hoffmann, one of 11 U.S. Open competitors to have played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, arrived with the expectation of another demanding test of golf from the Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout. (USGA/Fred Vuich)
Morgan Hoffmann, one of 11 U.S. Open competitors to have played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, arrived with the expectation of another demanding test of golf from the Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – In this era of launch monitors and laser-guided yardage books, elite golfers typically leave little to chance in their preparation. 

“These guys are like generals of an army,” said golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., who designed first-time U.S. Open site Chambers Bay. “They want to understand the fields of battle.”

More than many major-championship venues, Chambers Bay takes a lot of schooling to grasp its challenges – the best lesson perhaps being aware of a mindset that won’t go very far on this links-like course that opened in 2007. “A player won’t have much fun,” said Jones, “if he is someone who wants absolute predictability.”

Eleven players in the 156-man field have an education lacking among their fellow competitors because they played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay. And by teeing it up then, the amateur alumni – Byeong-Hun  An, Blayne Barber, Russell Henley, Morgan Hoffmann, Tom Hoge, Alex Kim, Brooks Koepka, Denny McCarthy, Cheng-Tsung Pan, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth – could  have an advantage now.

They’ve gotten good and bad bounces. They’ve watched shots feed off steep slopes and end up close to a flagstick or 40 yards off the green. They’ve seen the need for equanimity.

“You’re going to get a million bad breaks out here,” said Hoffmann, a quarterfinalist in 2010 who lost to eventual champion Peter Uihlein. “You can’t try and limit them. You hit a good shot, you can get an unfortunate bounce. But hopefully you get good ones, too. One word that describes how to play it is creative. It’s going to be interesting.”

There were moments during the 2010 U.S. Amateur when Chambers Bay was beyond interesting. On the first day of stroke play, the scoring average was 79.87. Seventy-nine of 156 players shot 80 or higher. Only three golfers broke par. The course, planted with fine fescue grass, is meant to play firm and fast. An attempt to get Chambers Bay to the edge in the way it played was crossed.   

“On golf-course setup, we learned a lot during the U.S. Amateur,” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said this year. “If I’m being very honest, we missed the boat on the stroke-play portion. It simply got too firm.”

The course was heavily watered prior to match play and conditions moderated. Uihlein defeated David Chung, 4 and 2, in the 36-hole final. An, who had won the U.S. Amateur at the record age of 17 in 2009, made it to the semifinals. Barber, Kim and Reed advanced to the Round of 32. McCarthy and Pan lost in the first round. Henley, Hoge, Koepka and Spieth did not qualify for match play.

“It’s a unique test. It’s different from anything we play,” Barber said. “It’s going to be difficult, but you need to embrace it. It’s nice to have been here. For the Amateur, it was a little more extreme, a little more baked out and dry. Funky things are still going to happen, though, and you have to accept them.”

McCarthy, who was 17 in 2010 and is the only one of the returning 11 to still be an amateur, is convinced playing Chambers Bay five years ago provides an advantage that practice rounds won’t give others.

“Definitely, it’s an edge,” said McCarthy, whose older brother, Ryan, also was at Chambers Bay in 2010 as his caddie. “I’ve played it in USGA [championship] conditions. They changed a few things, but everything’s pretty similar. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to do out here. Not many people knew what it was like coming out here this time. We had an exact idea. It can only help us.”

The first, seventh and 13th greens were modified for playability since 2010. “They’re still severe but less so,” Barber said. “Before, on the first hole, you could land it on the green and your ball could go 80 yards off on the left. They’ve definitely softened that up.”

In contrast to 2010, Hoffman believes conditions will get more demanding, not less, as the week unfolds. And that is fine with him.

“I know it’s going to get very firm and fast on the weekend,” Hoffmann said. “The harder the better for me. I practiced every day at Oklahoma State off hardpan. Playing in any U.S. Open is something I am grateful for. Coming back somewhere I know and have played before is even better.”

Jones is certain experience will be a plus for those who have competed before at Chambers Bay. “Definitely,” he said. “The more you play the course, the better. There is a lot of reason within this rhyme.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.