Monday, February 11, 2008

The 19th Hole: The Next Wave in Courses

Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington, was awarded this week by the USGA with the distinction of being the host site for the 2015 US Open. The course is less than a year old, as it opened last July. Designed in part by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. the golf course is a seaside links style course that is a feature situated on a 1000 mile state park. The state park was formed off of reclaimed quarry land.

In the scheme of the US Open rotation, the course simply does not seem to fit the pattern of how most courses get in the cycle. First, the USGA normally hands the US Amateur to a course as a dry run for what a more massive US Open would be like. The USGA did not do that with Chambers Bay. Instead, they also awarded the 2010 US Amateur to the club at the same time.

As mentioned, Chambers Bay has not been open even a year and has been awarded a US Open. It now becomes the only course on the existing rotation that was originally constructed after 1962. That means that it is at least 45 years younger than any other course in the rotation. Obviously, the USGA has gotten away from the requirement that a US Open course has to be a well-aged, legendary tournament course from the second golden age of course design in order to qualify as a host.

Also, Chambers Bay is 100% public. You could go play it tomorrow if you wanted. It joins a growing list of US Open courses that the public can get on – even for a steep green fee. Consider that Pebble Beach, Chambers Bay, Bethpage State Park, and Torrey Pines are all public golf courses that are hosting the Open in the near future. At some point in the past, the USGA would not dare get away from private clubs that the middle class could never touch. It is a remarkable tournament and, I think, directly attributable to the success of the 2002 US Open at Bethpage. (Too bad Torrey Pines will probably not have raucous New York crowds, but they may have raucous FBR Open crowds.)

Chambers Bay’s selection, then, seems to represent a divergence for the USGA in how they select courses. Why the change all of a sudden? After all, the US Open sites that lead to Chambers Bay are classic – Bethpage Black again, Pebble Beach, Congressional, Olympic Club, and Merion, which was thrown back into the cycle after not hosting since 1981.

It may, in part, have to do with the USGA’s mission to find its own Whistling Straits. In Kohler, Wisconsin, Whistling Straits is highly regarded as one of the great modern courses (founded in 1998). It is located on the coast of Lake Michigan and is designed in a links style. Having already hosted the PGA Championship once, the PGA of America has partnered with the club to host the championship twice more between now and 2015. The PGA of America has already started to include unconventional courses into the rotation with Whistling Straits and the USGA knew it had to do the same.

Another reason to pick such a youthful course is that is will require very little reworking by the USGA. Chambers Bay can currently play to an approximate length of 7,600 yards. That is more than enough for the US Open on an inland wooded course. On a course susceptible to the Pacific Northwest and its windy conditions, 7,600 yards may play closer to 8,000 on the right day.

The course is also designed using fescue grass. The US Open does not see much of that and I do not think it has since Corey Pavin won at Shinnecock 13 years ago. It is a completely different grass.

In other words, the USGA and Chambers Bay may not have a multimillion dollar bill so that the US Open would be suitable for the course. The USGA likely picked the course because it was fine just the way it was.

This decision seems to indicate to me the initiation of finding course rotations for the 21st century. Certainly, the classic American golf designs should never disappear from course rotations at the two US majors not in Augusta, Georgia. Still, there are new adventures in modern golf course design that deserve praise and showcase. Apparently, Whistling Straits and Chambers Bay represent the next wave of course design.

What is to come is a bidding war between the USGA and the PGA of America for the rights to host their championships at these younger gems. Fortunately, the golf fan comes out the winner in all of this because they are exposed to new, innovative courses that still harken back to the great designs that host our national majors today.

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