U.S. Open turns around money-losing course as golfers complain

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – After seven years of planning, it turns out that Chambers Bay Golf Course wasn’t entirely ready for its U.S. Open closeup. That doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t get a second chance.

The U.S. Golf Association brought one of the sport’s marquee events to the State of Washington for the first time, helping to fulfill the group’s mission to “grow the game” in a new place. It meant a financial turnaround for the 8-year-old public course, but Chambers Bay’s inconsistent putting greens were exposed and the USGA was criticized for poor spectators’ sight-lines on the hilly course.

“We’re not looking for perfect greens,” Billy Horschel said after his final round. ‘But we’re looking for something that’s very consistent. And for them to say that they built this golf course for the U.S. Open is awful. I feel like the fans got robbed of being able to get up close to the players and see the shots we hit.”

Jordan Spieth won the event Sunday when Dustin Johnson missed two putts from within 12 feet on the 18th green, the first to win and the second to force a playoff. Spieth, a 21-year-old Texan, was the youngest winner of the tournament since Bobby Jones in 1923.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

While the USGA said it will take months to fully evaluate bringing the event to Chambers Bay, Mike Davis, the association’s executive director, said the two items Horschel mentioned were already on the top of his list.

The course’s putting surfaces became inconsistent after poa annua grass began to take over on some of the greens, which had become thin over the winter, Davis said. Poa annua tends to stand up as it grows throughout the day, while fescue stays close to the ground. When the two are mixed, it leads to bumpy putting surfaces in the afternoon.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Davis said. “Coming into it, nobody really anticipated this.”

As the complaints piled up throughout the week, questions arose about what could have been done, if anything. According to Davis, not much.

- Advertisement -

“For people who might say, ‘why didn’t the USGA do anything?’ you really don’t understand agronomy,” Davis said. “What are we going to do two months before the U.S. Open, gas the greens and replant them? At this point, we were just trying to make the best of the situation. This is a county golf course and they can’t afford to close this thing for months at a time while they’re seeding grass.”

The course, a Pierce County, Washington-owned facility built on the site of a former rock quarry, was constructed with towering mounds of dirt covered with knee-high fescue. Walking the hills was treacherous – two caddies suffered minor injuries in falls – and Tiger Woods slipped and fell while trying to hit a shot on the left side of the 10th green in his second round.

Several players during the week said they felt bad for the fans who had to try to traverse the property – which has sweeping views of Puget Sound – and were often unable to get close to the action. No fans were allowed on the 8th hole due to its steep slopes.

While Horschel, who finished nine strokes behind Spieth, was critical of some aspects of the course, he also praised it for having better views than California’s Pebble Beach and Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, courses he had ranked as his two favorite scenic venues until he saw Chambers Bay for the first time six weeks ago.

- Advertisement -

“It’s a spectacular view,” he said. “I would tell anyone to come here because the view is unbelievable.”

When the tournament leaves town, the course will provide Pierce County with a steady revenue stream in a part of the country not known as a golf destination, said Pat McCarthy, Pierce County executive.

From 2009 until 2013, Chambers Bay was a money loser, according to McCarthy. That started to turn around about two years ago, as people sought the chance to play a future U.S. Open site. According to county records, Chambers Bay – which can cost as much as $275 for non-County residents to play and $209 for locals – brought in a record $6.9 million in revenue last year, including $1 million in merchandise sales.

“We anticipate an afterglow for years to come with people wanting to come here and play the course,” McCarthy said.

In order for the professionals to come back, though, changes will have to be made.

“If we’re ever coming back, we’ve got to get consistent greens, and we have to make the spectator viewing experience better,” Davis said. “This is my 26th Open and I have never even come close to doing one where you say ‘we nailed it.’ But if we can figure out a way to deal with those two major issues, it will be discussed.”