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Originally published Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. Open nod gives Chambers Bay a big boost

Of all the golf courses built in the past 45 years — courses by Dye and Nicklaus and Doak and Fazio, courses like Spyglass Hill, Whistling Straits, Muirfield Village and Kiawah Island — only one has been selected to host a United States Open Championship. Chambers Bay in University Place.

Special to The Seattle Times

It was as if, in an instant, Chambers Bay had been anointed. As if a puff of white smoke had appeared from the Vatican, or as if pixie dust had been sprinkled on the new course in the old gravel pit.

No longer was the debate on whether Chambers Bay, at upward of $175 for greens fees, was worth it, or if it were too hard a walk, or if it could indeed realize its presumptuous dream of hosting a major championship.

Of all the golf courses built in the past 45 years — courses by Dye and Nicklaus and Doak and Fazio, courses like Spyglass Hill, Whistling Straits, Muirfield Village and Kiawah Island — only one has been selected to host a United States Open Championship.

Chambers Bay in University Place.

Why? And why now, less than a year after the course opened?

When the architects from Robert Trent Jones II made their pitch to build Pierce County a course that could host a major, they came bearing phony bag tags that said "Chambers Bay, home of the 2030 U.S. Open." They undersold the product. The Open will be held here in 2015, following the U.S. Amateur in 2010.

After all these years of not playing the Open in the Northwest, why did Chambers Bay get it before its time, before it had history, deep rough and stands of gnarly trees — and members to match?

Because the USGA honestly believes the 2015 Open will be not only the most artistically different Open in history, but the most well-attended and profitable as well.

"It wasn't enough to build 18 great golf holes," said John Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive who was responsible for the dream as well as the development.

"There was far more to it than that."

"Something special"

From the moment Ladenburg pushed through his grand plan to create Turnberry in Tacoma by hiring Jones and giving him a blank canvas as well as a blank check, he went after the big boys in the USGA.

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And, as it turned out, they wanted Chambers Bay as much as it wanted the U.S. Open. The USGA was consulted from the day the first cubic yard of sand was moved on the property.

"When I saw the site, and the sand, and thought about how badly we wanted to have the Open in the Northwest," said Mike Davis of the USGA, "I knew we had something special."

They had an Open site in the Western United States, where June weather is without thunderstorms, where the days are long enough to ensure prime-time television viewing on the East Coast. A U.S. Open site that is within an hour of Seattle, in fact where spectators will be able to ride dedicated trains to a temporary station near the 18th tee.

"There is no site quite like this in an urban area," wrote Ron Whitten of Golf Digest magazine.

It's a site that not only offers views of mountains and ferries — and sits along the train tracks like British Open sites Royal Lytham and St. Annes to suggest antiquity — but also has a 350-acre park next door with a bandstand that could hold a rock concert one day and the tournament trophy presentation the next.

It won't be a traditional U.S. Open. A few fairways will be narrowed, but the rolling terrain and the wind and the sand will defend the course, not rough or fast greens. Early projections are that the 13th and 18th holes will play as par 4s, not par 5s, and that the course will measure 7,600 yards.

Ladenburg didn't want to build just another public golf course on the depleted quarry next to the county's sewer plant.

He gave Jones the go-ahead to use as much land and spend as much money as he needed (250 acres and $20 million) to develop a course that could bring in a professional tournament.

Made for prime time

These days, Pierce County is looking at a gold mine instead of a gravel mine. Rounds doubled after the February announcement that the Open was coming. The projection is for 36,000 rounds this year; early hopes had been for 32,000.

Chambers Bay is developing the same cachet that has made Bandon Dunes in Southern Oregon a must-visit place for every serious devotee of the game.

Golfers probably have no idea how much thought was put into the design, and how much the USGA had to say about it.

For example, the second fairway is situated well above the 16th hole so spectators can use it to view the final holes of a U.S. Open. The first hole will similarly be a viewing spot for the 18th.

Positions for TV cameras were established during construction. There was concern over whether late-afternoon sun would be in the players' eyes in June, when the Open is held.

No course will ever have been so prepared, so far in advance, for U.S. Open spectators, sponsors, media and, hopefully, for the competitors.

"It isn't by chance," said Ladenburg, "that the areas south of No. 18 (on top of scruffy dunes) are exactly the same size as corporate tents for a recent U.S. Open and are already wired and plumbed."

The USGA discovering Chambers Bay is not unlike the NCAA finding the Kingdome in 1984 for its Final Four basketball championship.

So much room, so many people. There is talk of the U.S. Open drawing 70,000 spectators each day at Chambers Bay, three times the number likely to watch the Open two years earlier at old Merion in Philadelphia.

With the assurances of the Open, Pierce County is moving ahead now to build a clubhouse with housing for more than 100 guests just below the temporary clubhouse.

It will also build a practice facility that will have on its edges three practice holes. Corporate and media tents for the Open will occupy the area presently used for practice. All the corporate areas will have views of play.

"We just always felt that if we put the bar high enough — if we built the course for a U.S. Open — that even if we didn't get the Open, we'd get something else," said Ladenburg.

The USGA officials were not only willing, but were eager to get away from the traditional Eastern country-club sites.

When the members at Winged Foot said they didn't want to hold the 2015 Open, the USGA got to Chambers Bay before anyone else could.

It wasn't going to let the PGA of America preempt them as it did at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, the site of a wildly successful PGA Championship and the future home of a Ryder Cup match.

Once Bethpage Black, the big, bold public course in New York, broke the mold for the U.S. Open, the next step was a chance to play the course on hard ground and fescue grasses, where the greens are sometimes not much faster than the fairways.

Clearly, these are new times and new territories for championship golf.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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