The very last moment of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay was heartbreaking for Dustin Johnson and his fans. But thank goodness the championship’s final hour was full of tension, excitement, and gripping golf.
It certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Professional golfers have been complaining about course conditions for decades. As we know, Jack Nicklaus knew to discount the threat of other players when he heard them grumbling. Competitors weren’t afraid to voice their concern over Augusta National’s tough set-up in 2007 when Zach Johnson laid up en route to a rather lifeless two-shot victory. Everyone remembers Shinnecock Hills coming under heavy fire during the 2004 U.S. Open when the turf on the 7th green became so short, parched, and dead it was unable to resist the roll of a golf ball. And you’ll recall Carnoustie’s narrow fairways and thick rough were severely criticized at the 1999 Open Championship.
One of the most unflattering, but best-known, course reviews was Dave Hill’s summation of the Robert Trent Jones-designed Hazeltine National GC in Chaska, MN which opened in 1962 and hosted the US Open eight years later. Despite eventually finishing runner-up to Tony Jacklin, Hill remarked that if he had to play the course every day for fun, he’d find another game. “Just because you cut the grass and put up flags doesn’t mean you have a golf course,” he continued. “What does it lack? Eighty acres of corn and a few cows.”
Hill, a 13-time winner on the PGA Tour who passed away in September 2011, revisited Hazeltine 20 years after the course’s major debut and came away with a very different impression. “There’s a big difference between a 10-year-old course and one that’s 30 years old,” he said. “I liked it. I never meant to offend the Hazeltine members (back in 1970). I meant to offend the United States Golf Association for putting the tournament on a course that wasn’t ready.”
Which brings us to Chambers Bay, of course.
The Pierce County-owned facility was awarded the 2015 US Open in February 2008, just a few months after opening. Winged Foot GC’s West Course had been the first choice, but members didn’t like the idea of giving up the club’s 18 other holes (East Course) for much of the summer. At his firm’s final interview for the job of designing Chambers Bay, Robert Trent Jones Jr handed out bag tags to county officials inscribed with the words ‘Chambers Creek U.S. Open 2030’. Might it have been better for the USGA to keep Chambers Bay in reserve until then?
A number of players had some very harsh words for the state of the fescue greens, many of which had become discolored with patches of poa annua. Poa grows quicker than fescue, a situation that led to a good deal of unevenness. With a look of total disdain, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson likened them to putting on broccoli, while pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy said they were more like cauliflower. In the Fox TV booth, Gil Hanse compared putting on Chambers Bay’s greens to putting from the top of his head to Corey Pavin’s to Greg Norman’s to Joe Buck’s.
So what went wrong? In April, local newspapers reported the greens were in superb shape following a mild winter. “The warm weather this winter allowed some growth,” Scott Hansen wrote in the Seattle Times. “That, combined with reduced play and the covering of greens on bad days, has the course in prime condition.” In photographs the USGA sent out prior to US Open week, the greens looked…well, green – not lush exactly (fescue could never be lush), but a delicious, healthy, almost emerald color.
By the time U.S. Open week rolled around, however, the greens clearly weren’t in prime condition. Shaved to 17/100ths of an inch and infested with this rogue poa (except for the 7th and 13th greens, reseeded in 2013), they were perhaps too quick for the amount of slope the greens have, and too bumpy for modern-day, entitled professionals used to putting on grassy carpets every week. The USGA, as it does every year, had taken the greens to the very limit – clearly too far for many.
For Pacific Northwest golf fans who had been looking forward to hosting the championship for years, the players’ condemnation felt almost personal. We wanted the world’s best to come to the region and love every bit of it. Yes, they admired the scenery and thought very highly of the fans. But they hated the greens, and that rankled. We didn’t feel responsible certainly, but the disappointment was palpable.
We wanted someone to blame.
So who was at fault? Eric Johnson, the course’s Director of Agronomy? Absolutely not. He had done an amazing job with the greens since moving from Bandon Dunes in July 2012, plus he was just doing what the USGA instructed him to do. Robert Trent Jones, the course architect? Don’t be silly. Players were generally very complimentary about the holes themselves, from their perspective at least. The difficulty fans had trying to follow certain players (235,000 fans packed the dunes and trails during the week making it one of the best-attended U.S. Opens ever), the total absence of a gallery on the 8th hole, and log jams at various spots around the course were all very regrettable, but Jones and his associates Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi couldn’t really be held responsible for that. They had been told by the USGA to build the best course possible – with a definite emphasis on the playing experience. As Blasi said earlier this week in response to the criticism, building a hole that’s great for both players and fans is a very tough balancing act.
How about KemperSports, which manages the course? No, they had nothing to do with it. Pierce County which owns it? Er, no. They likewise weren’t involved in the final set-up.
The USGA then, and executive director Mike Davis in particular? It was Davis that made all the decisions regarding course conditions, so surely he should feel culpable. Fair enough, Davis would probably be the right man to target. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t exactly the first time he, or the USGA, had taken a course to near breaking point. He didn’t grow the poa. And we shouldn’t forget the list of innovations Davis introduced at Chambers Bay. The USGA has often been panned for its staid immobility and annoying inflexibility, so perhaps we should welcome, if not applaud, Davis’s mini-revolution. He introduced two teeing areas at the par 3 9th creating two very different holes, switched the pars of the 1st and 18th, made the 72nd hole an exciting par 5, played the championship on a course seeded entirely with fescue for the first time, significantly altered the yardages of each hole every day and took the event to the Pacific Northwest – where it had never gone before.
But here’s a question for everyone that didn’t enjoy what they saw, and even went as far as to say it was a ‘tragedy’ and the worst course they’d ever seen for a major (yes, you Mr. Player) – do we really need to apportion any blame at all? Did anything really go wrong?
Billy Horschel, one of the most vociferous players last week, said the playing surfaces should reflect the prestige of the championship. That’s a fair statement, but when did the U.S. Open become an agronomy contest? It is a grueling examination, and each player should do their level best to beat everyone else regardless of the conditions. Gary Player’s erroneous accusation a course like this would need a lot of water was a little rich coming just two months after his most recent tribute to Augusta National which, as everyone knows, is to environmentalism what Chicken McNuggets are to nutrition. And the fact he had applied for the design job and been turned down didn’t bolster his comments any.
Geoff Ogilvy, a learned man and eloquent speaker on the subject of course design, not to mention a former U.S. Open champion, said pros these days had become a little precious and that the greens really weren’t that bad. “We’ve played on far bumpier greens than this at a U.S. Open,” he said. “We’re losing the ability to adapt, to see the speed difference when you look at it, to feel it under your feet. It’s not that big a problem, and I don’t think it will affect the outcome of the tournament. Good putters do well on bumpy greens. They just get on with it.”
Canadian Brad Fritsch, who finished tied for 46th on 288, was another who thought the moaners made way too big a deal of the greens. “I must have had 30 putts inside six feet and didn’t miss one,” he says. “It was all about attitude. I tried to keep the same routine I have every week – pick a line, aim the putterface and hit it.”
“I think those that were unhappy should have made their point once, then moved on,” Fritsch continues. “And I definitely wouldn’t have used words like ‘embarrassing’ or ‘disgraceful’.”
All the talk of the greens took the spotlight away from the actual golf for the first three days. But with a packed leaderboard headed by Branden Grace, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Masters champion Jordan Spieth, the final round promised a thrilling climax.
Local interest had faded slightly after Ryan Moore’s departure following rounds of 75 and 74. Michael Putnam (70, 77) and Richard Lee’s (74, 80) failure to make the 36-hole cut also robbed home fans of the chance to support their favorites. Fortunately though, UW alumni Troy Kelly and Cheng-Tsung Pan did make it to the weekend – Kelly shooting a superb final-round 69 to finish in a tie for 39th and Pan, who had Coach Matt Thurmond on the bag, finishing tied for 64th on 293.
By the time Kelly finished his final round, the activity at the top of the leaderboard was really beginning to heat up. The contenders jostled for position on another glorious, sunny day, making the last hour or so pure theater, an enthralling spectacle in which the main characters, playing some of the most exciting holes in the game, kept fans on the edge of their seats with their fantastic birdies and gruesome misadventures. Adam Scott shot a best-of-the-week 64. Rory McIlroy, starting the final day eight back, got to within two of the lead at one point. Louis Oosthuizen rebounded from three early bogies to make six birdies in seven holes on the back and finish on four-under 276.
But Grace sliced his drive badly off the 16th tee and went out of bounds, resulting in a six. Spieth hit a shocker off the 17th tee, three-putted, and made a double of his own. At the last, however, the 21-year-old Masters champion smashed a 285-yard 3-wood approach that looked like it would drift right into the bunker but held its line long enough to finish about ten feet from the hole. With the resulting birdie, Spieth was round in 69 and he completed the 72 holes on 275.
Dustin Johnson, in the group behind, needed a birdie to tie and hit a superb drive on the 601-yard hole, followed by a 5-iron that rolled 12ft left of the cup. He barely touched his first putt, but it crept four feet past. Then he missed the birdie putt.
So Spieth won by a stroke and collected his second straight major championship. One wonders how many more he’ll have won by the time the U.S. Open next comes to Chambers Bay.