Dustin Johnson stood over a 12-foot, 4-inch eagle putt, and the stakes could not have been higher.
If he made it, he would be the winner of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the first time the event had been held in the Northwest.
No one was thinking about the weeklong griping about the bumpy greens, the result of unseasonably hot weather, or the limited on-site access to fans. Not with history at stake.
The crowd groaned as Johnson rolled his putt 4 feet past the hole. He needed to make the next putt to force an 18-hole playoff. When he shockingly missed again, Jordan Spieth at 21 became the youngest U.S. Open winner since 1923.
Chambers Bay, the links course built along Puget Sound in University Place, delivered a star-studded leaderboard, a dramatic finish, and the community set U.S. Open records with its support.
But the legacy of the event, which ended five years ago on June 21? Well, it’s complicated.
And will there be another U.S. Open at Chambers Bay?
The course is not on the list of confirmed sites that runs through 2027, but Danny Sink, the championship coordinator for the 2015 U.S. Open, remains hopeful, especially with the course having changed the grass on its greens in 2018.
“I’ve never hoped for anything more, quite frankly,” said Sink, who was in charge of everything that happened outside the ropes at the 2015 U.S. Open. “If I got a vote, which I unfortunately don’t, but if I did, I would vote 100 percent for it to come back.”
Use the slider below to see the transformation of Chambers Bay Golf Course from 2015 to 2020:
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The world watches
The golf world was stunned in 2008, when the United States Golf Association (USGA) announced Chambers Bay, owned by Pierce County, would host the U.S. Open. Only the most prestigious and hallowed courses were picked to host the national championship.
No course built in the previous 45 years had hosted an Open, yet Chambers Bay was selected after being open for about eight months.
Because the course was so new, so unknown to players and fans, the pressure was on. That it was the first U.S. Open to be played on fine fescue fairways and greens only amplified it.
Community support surpassed expectations. When the call for volunteers (who paid $165 to help) came 15 months in advance, the response was so great that the online system went down.
Tickets for the event, capped at 30,000, sold out months in advance.
“It was really a special time because of the energy that was there, and growing up there, it meant a lot to me personally,” said John Bodenhamer, who grew up in Lakewood and as Senior Managing Director for the USGA he oversees the U.S. Open. “We look back today, and we talk about how quickly we sold out tickets and how we had about 5,000 volunteers lined up in less than 24 hours. It was amazing. We broke records for merchandise sales, and the weather was nothing like I had ever seen before.”
The fans were ready, but the greens weren’t, thanks to unseasonable hot and dry weather. Fine fescue grows best in a cool, maritime climate. With the unexpected heat, the greens needed more water than normal and the extra water allowed the native poa annua grass to start invading.
“Guys were literally on their hands and knees picking poa from the putting surfaces,” said Zac Keener, general manager of Chambers Bay.
It didn’t help enough. The greens were bumpy and it became the big story of the tournament, at least until the dramatic finish.
Henrik Stenson famously said it was like “putting on broccoli.”
To which Rory McIlroy responded, “I don’t think they are as green as broccoli,’’ he said. “I think they’re more like cauliflower.’’
“I think any of us at the USGA or Chambers Bay would have preferred playing greens that were a little bit better agronomically, but it had been pretty warm all the way back to February,” Bodenhamer said. “You can look back on why that happened, but we choose to look ahead. There is no denying that will be part of that championship’s legacy, but I don’t think we dwell on it. We learned from it and I look at the overwhelming positives that came from the Chambers Bay U.S. Open.”
For all the complaining, the best players separated themselves. There was nothing fluky about the final leaderboard, with McIlroy, Adam Scott and Jason Day – all having been No. 1 in the world at some point – joining Spieth and Johnson in the top 11.
“The quality of the leaderboard can’t be questioned,” Sink said. “Eight of the top 11 are now major champions. Hearing all the negativity from the players about the greens, the bumpiness in the greens, I kind of took that personally. … I get both sides of it now, but I didn’t get both sides when it was just over because all I was hearing was how the greens were bad.”
The other major complaint was how much of the course was roped off to fans. There had been several injuries in 2010 when Chambers Bay hosted the U.S. Amateur and fans were free to roam the hilly, sandy course.
“Since 2015, I have been to Chambers Bay on two occasions,” Sink said. “We would need to make some land modifications to make it more accessible and safe. The reason why Chambers Bay was set up like that outside the ropes was for safety reasons. There are a lot of undulations out there and we didn’t want people to get hurt. We didn’t want that on our conscience.”
Sink said if the U.S. Open were to return, “We would work with the owners of the golf course to make some conscious decisions on what could be done outside the ropes to make it a better viewing experience for the fans.”
Troy Andrew, CEO of Washington Golf and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, said despite the complaints, the net effect has been very positive.
“If you really step back and look at what it did for the Pacific Northwest, not just the state of Washington, it was huge for golf,” he said.
Sink said people ask him more about the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay than any of the other 19 he has worked at. He said the views these days are almost always positive.
“We got dealt a bad hand (with the unseasonably hot and dry weather), but there is nothing you can do about that,” he said. “I have 100 percent positives about Chambers Bay. I love the place.”
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A makeover at Chambers Bay
In the fall of 2018, Chambers Bay closed for several months to change the greens from fine fescue to poa.
It was a move made in consultation with the USGA.
“Fescue, long term, was going to be something that was going to be a little unruly to manage,” Keener said of the greens. “We were going to go all in and make this place sustainable for the long term.”
Sink called it a smart move, even though the course had to postpone hosting the U.S. Amateur Four Ball championship from 2019 to 2021.
“The reviews have been off the chart,” Keener said. “The course rating (by customers) has been far and away the highest it’s ever been.”
Bodenhamer called the new greens “a real positive.”
“It’s really increasing the enjoyment and the value of that asset, an important asset,” Bodenhamer said. “To take that step and enhance that amenity that the county has, it’s going to set them up for a great future. It will make for a better U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship next year.”
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Will Chambers Bay host another U.S. Open?
That’s still an open question.
Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA, was in charge of setup for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay (a role now held by Bodenhamer) and said this before the 2015 U.S. Open: “As far as I am concerned, if it’s just one time and we are done, then it will be a big failure. It’s too special, and the course is too unique not to have more U.S. Opens. We want to come back.”
But will they?
“I get that question a lot,” Bodenhamer said. “I don’t know. We continue to evaluate a number of courses. It depends on a lot of factors, mostly the course and the market, and where the players want to go. … I will tell you this: We keep a close eye on Chambers Bay. I can’t make any commitments for the future, but it continues to be on our radar for sure.”
Andrew is confident the U.S. Open will return to Chambers Bay at some point.
“My personal opinion and from what I have heard from some USGA friends, is that they’re going to really look at how the (U.S. Amateur Four-Ball) goes, the condition of the golf course and the greens before they commit to anything bigger in the future, whether it be a U.S. Open or a U.S. Women’s Open,” Andrew said. “If they pull it off, the USGA likes to go back to the same spots – so coming back to Chambers Bay, I think will happen. If you look at that piece of property, it’s perfect for a U.S. Open.”
There has been speculation that Chambers Bay could host a U.S. Women’s Open, which has confirmed sites through 2025, before getting another men’s U.S. Open.
“The goal is to get to host any of the championships,” Keener said. “The men’s Open is fantastic and we would like to see another one return, but the ladies’ Open is something we would be really excited to have, as well as a U.S. Amateur (which it hosted in 2010) and the U.S. Women’s Amateur. We just want to continue to see championships come to the Northwest.”
Keener said hosting the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship from May 22-26 next year is a “chance to show one more time that we can get the course where it needs to be from a condition standpoint.”
The USGA will be watching closely.
“Our focus is on the Four-Ball,” Bodenhamer said. “If we have a successful one, we can have discussions about the future. We have great admiration for Chambers Bay. We think it’s a great story, and it’s an important part of the country for the USGA to have a presence. We love Chambers Bay.”