The lone fir tree at Chambers Bay ready for its featured role come the U.S. Open in June
UNIVERSITY PLACE — John Ladenburg remembers walking around the site of Chambers Bay golf course the winter before it opened with NBC broadcaster Bob Costas and course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Living in an area where trees are everywhere, Ladenburg didn’t think much about the lone fir tree, standing as an isolated beacon directly above Puget Sound.
But then came an aha moment for Ladenburg, the former Pierce County executive who spearheaded the Chambers Bay project.
June 18-21 @ Chambers Bay
“A bald eagle flew over us, and it landed on the tree,” Ladenburg said.
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Costas was quite impressed and pantomimed a camera capturing the sight, saying it was made for TV. Ladenburg knew then how valuable the tree was.
A legend was born.
Chambers Bay prides itself that it has no signature hole, because all 18 are special. But the tree, about 40 feet tall, has become a defining feature of the course. Most players consider the par-3 15th hole, with the tree directly behind the green, the signature hole. It does not matter that the tree is not in play; it would take an unbelievably bad shot to hit it.
Jones, the architect, has a story, too.
He said he was walking around the site before construction with Ladenburg and Mike Davis, now the executive director of the USGA.
“Mike wanted to see the Puget Sound and said, ‘You ought to take the tree out.’ And John says, ‘There are a lot of things I can do, but if I move the tree I will be impeached.’
“We decided to leave the tree as a reminder of the area we are in, where there are billions of trees. It reminds people where you are.”
Jones says the true links courses in Britain and Ireland have no trees, but he still wanted the tree to stay.
“I am an artist underneath it all,” he said. “It appeals to me from an aesthetic view. Sometimes you leave things alone. There were discussions that you could see the Sound better if you took it out. But I think it highlights Puget Sound.”
In April 2008, a year after the course opened, the tree was vandalized. Someone tried to chop it down, carving into the tree about three inches.
By then, Ladenburg was determined to have a tree in that spot. He began looking at options to replace the tree in case it didn’t survive.
“I talked to George Weyerhaeuser about the ability to move huge trees — a 60-foot tree,” Ladenburg said.
It could be done, Ladenburg was told, via helicopter. But even with donations from the Weyerhaeuser Co., Ladenburg said the bill was going to be $100,000.
It was money never spent. With the help of arborists, the tree survived and even thrived.
“Until then, no one had really looked at the tree,” Ladenburg said. “It had been stressed. Work was done to make the roots stronger. It’s healthier now than before it was vandalized. The person who vandalized it really did us a favor.”
Eric Johnson, director of agronomy at Chambers Bay, said an arborist checks the tree each year, and the reports have been good.
Soon it will become a TV star. Once the tree’s visual appeal was realized, the 16th tee box was moved next to it.
“During the Open, players will tee up under the tree, with the two Narrows bridges behind them,” Ladenburg said. “It will be a great sight.”