This grandiose dream began with the starkest of sights. A barbed-wire fence fronting overgrown weeds, concealing the sewage-treatment plant and gravel and sand mine that operated hundreds of feet below. That fence is gone.
There is no need to cover up the 230-acre panoramic spread called Chambers Bay, the links golf course with unobstructed views of Puget Sound. bisected by public walking trails, the occasional train whizzing by only adds to the ambience.
In about 14 months, this idyllic spot just southwest of Tacoma in University Place will be known to the world. The U.S. Open is coming.
The golfing world was stunned in 2008, when the United States Golf Association (USGA) made Chambers Bay the host of the U.S. Open. It just didn’t make sense. Only the most prestigious and hallowed courses were picked to host the national championship.
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No course built in the previous 45 years had hosted an Open, yet Chambers Bay was picked after being open for about eight months.
This was no fluke, though. It was years in the making, and it took the right three people to make it happen: the Dreamer, the Designer and the Director.
Get to know them, and how they worked together, and you will understand why the U.S. Open is on its way to the Northwest for the first time.
John Ladenburg was early in his first term as Pierce County executive in 2001 when he got a call from the city manager of University Place.
The city had beautified Grandview Street above the Puget Sound, but the barbed-wire fence on the Sound side of the street was covering up overgrown county land, spoiling the effect.
And that is where the story begins.
Ladenburg discovered that the county owned 1,000 acres on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, where a sewage plant and gravel and sand mine operated. A 50-year plan existed to turn the land into a public-use area.
“We had two miles of beach down there with western exposure to the Puget Sound, and no one could get to it,” Ladenburg recalled. “I said, ‘We need to do this in eight years, not 50.’ The only thing that would generate revenue was a golf course, and it really was a unique property, with all the sand making it even more viable for a golf course.”
But Ladenburg, now in private practice as an attorney, wasn’t interested in just any golf course. He wanted a golf course that would attract players from around the world.
And more than anything, he wanted a golf course that would host a U.S. Open.
“We wanted to do something on a scale that hadn’t been done here before,” Ladenburg said. “We wanted to build a world-class golf course that would be a tourist attraction, and we wanted to have a major tournament, and particularly the U.S. Open.”
Ladenburg read a book about Bethpage Black in New York, which became the first municipal course to host a U.S. Open, in 2002, and that further inspired him.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t we be the Bethpage Black of the West?’” Ladenburg said. “We had this great piece of property that we could shape any way we want.”
Soon, the gravel and mine operation ceased, its lease not renewed. Ladenburg began seeking possible designers, and got inquiries from 78 companies. That list was then cut to five.
When Robert Trent Jones Jr. made his pitch to be the designer of the course, he brought along bag tags that said “Chambers Bay, home of the 2030 U.S. Open.”
From the start, Jones and Ladenburg shared the same vision. Jones had drawn plans for the county-requested 27-hole layout, but Jones also presented a plan for just 18 holes. To him, the choice was easy.
“Let’s do 18 great holes rather than 27 good ones,” Jones said. “Let’s aim for the most important championship in the world, and we can’t compromise.”
Jones certainly had the name recognition and contacts to get the USGA to take notice, being the son of one of the most famous course designers in American history and acclaimed in his own right.
Jones’ courses had been used for other USGA championships, but none of his courses had hosted the big one. He knew that could change when he saw the site at Chambers Bay, and he dearly wanted the job.
Jones’ plan was a “links course on steroids.”
Jones wanted a walking-only course, with no water holes, and all on fescue grass, just like the grand links courses in Britain. And he had all the land he could dream of.
“Chambers Bay is on 230 acres, St. Andrews is on 87,” Jones said.
Ladenburg was sold.
There was dancing in the office at Jones’ company when Ladenburg delivered the good news.
Jones could do what he wanted. Money was not an issue. His directive was to design the greatest course his mind could conceive, and it came at a cost of $20 million.
“This was an extraordinary site where you could truly turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” Jones said after the course opened.
They had him at “sand.”
Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, and the man who is in charge of course set-up at U.S. Opens, remembers getting an excited call from Ron Read, the USGA director of regional affairs for the West.
Read told him he thought Chambers Bay could be a course that could someday host USGA championships. Davis, who at the time was senior director of rules and competitions, had taken similar calls over the years. He wasn’t going to be easily sold.
“He tells me that it’s in the Pacific Northwest, which was interesting, because we had never had a U.S. Open out there,” Davis said. “Then he tells me it’s on Puget Sound, which is an added benefit being on the water, and that it has almost 1,000 acres and it’s going to be on sand.”
The sand was the clincher.
“It’s always better when courses are built on sand because the fairways are hard and fast. It adds a wonderful element,” Davis said.
That element is the ground game, which most fans only see at the British Open, where putting the ball from 30 to 50 yards might be a better play than a wedge shot.
Davis loves devising the annual test that both confounds and challenges the world’s greatest players. Jones likens Davis to a chess champion, or a general like Dwight Eisenhower.
“He is a deep, deep thinker, who tries to know what the other guy is thinking and respond to that,” Jones said.
So Davis came to University Place. What he discovered was a site with a lot of possibilities.
“For me, it’s like being a kid in a candy store,” Davis said when the course opened.
But Davis found something just as important as the great site. He found that Jones and Ladenburg were willing to do what it took to get a U.S. Open.
“I told Mike that we were willing to do everything perfect, and that we would prove it over time,” Ladenburg said. “If we are doing something wrong, we will change it. We will do everything that needs to be done. If we are 99.9 percent right, we lose. We won’t get an Open. We have to be 100 percent right.”
It is no coincidence that Chambers Bay has everything that a course needs to host a U.S. Open
Every detail of Jones’ design had the ultimate goal in mind.
Jones looked at the courses that had held previous U.S. Opens.
“We doubled the size,” Jones said.
Davis, who has had a long relationship with Jones, was consulted throughout. For Davis, it wasn’t just about the golf. It was also about the logistics of holding an Open, like finding room for at least 50,000 people, corporate tents and the like.
“We kept it under wraps by design,” Ladenburg said of consulting with Davis and the USGA during construction. “They could have walked away at any time.”
Meanwhile, Jones and his team got to work.
More than 100,000 truckloads of sand were removed, filtered and then replaced.
The finished product drew great reviews from much of the golfing world. But more important to Ladenburg and Jones was the USGA’s approval.
History is made
Ladenburg determined that the fastest route to a U.S. Open was for Chambers Bay to first host a U.S. Amateur. Soon after the course opened on June 23, 2007, Pierce County sent a formal letter to the USGA saying it would like Chambers Bay to host the 2010 Amateur.
In December 2007, Ladenburg got a call from Davis. Historic Winged Foot in New York, which has hosted five U.S. Opens, had been expected to host the 2015 Open. But its members voted against hosting the Open so soon after having it in 2006.
Davis wanted to know if Ladenburg wanted to also apply.
“I told Mike we would get a letter in the mail that day,” Ladenburg said.
He had the letter sent via express mail.
“First of all, I couldn’t believe any course would turn down having the U.S. Open,” said Ladenburg. “I really didn’t think we had a chance of getting it, but I wanted them to know we were interested.”
Jones got a call in the first week of February 2008 telling him that Chambers Bay had been selected to host not only the 2010 U.S. Amateur but also the 2015 U.S. Open. Jones was offered a plane ticket to Houston to go to the announcement at the USGA’s annual meeting.
“I don’t need a ticket,” Jones said. “ I will get on Cloud 9.”
For Ladenburg, the first emotion after being stunned was relief.
“We had taken a tremendous amount of criticism, people telling us that would we would never get an Open, and that it was just another course. It was unrelenting criticism, both locally and nationally, and it was a great relief.
“People think this happened overnight, but we had been working for 7½ years to get there.”
Davis got to have a test run of the course in championship conditions with the U.S. Amateur. Jones has made many tweaks at the USGA’s direction, with Davis having many options on how each hole will be played, even changing some holes from par 5s to par 4s and vice versa during the championship.
Davis said he never once lost confidence in Chambers Bay, and the level of local involvement and corporate backing have him even more convinced it was a good pick.
“I am not sure I have looked at it from a personal standpoint, but you could say there is more on the line,” Davis said. “We feel it’s a great site, there is the excitement that we want, and we would like more U.S. Opens to come. 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.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org