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Big, bold, vertical - Chambers Bay

26 June, 2015

Big, bold, vertical - Chambers Bay

Golf course architect Ronald Fream shares his thoughts on the controversial US Open venue

Much is being said now in reaction to the thrilling results at the recent US Open golf championship at Chambers Bay Golf Course, near Tacoma, Washington.

Not all comments have been favorable, kind, complementary, praising. Some very unkind words were heard from some players during the event. No doubt even more unkind remarks were said in the locker room, at some sports bars, and now in the press. The event will be discussed for a good long time. Regardless one's opinion, Chambers Bay made an impression that has legs, that will last well into the future. At every future US Open for years to come remarks will reference one way or another what was put on offer at the 2015 US Open.

It is worth noting that the best players came close to winning; the best player did.

Some prima donna pro players were displeased, even embarrassed, by their results. Too spoiled by the ever more accommodating weak set ups of regular PGA Tour tournaments: mediocre courses, immaculate turf grass conditions, soft nearly flat putting surfaces, shallow bunkers, mild pin settings, some pros lost their way to never before scores. They were not happy campers. Good! The US pro circuit, and the Asian circuit have become a feeding trough for many over marketed players. I feel that when 15 under is a tie for third, the essence of golf has been lost.

Chambers Bay surely does need some remedial help; so too does the USGA senior executive staff.

The US Open has historically been offered as the toughest test of golf possible. Let the cream rise, define the best player; for that week. Chambers Bay did that in full measure.

However, the USGA decision makers were foolish to try and emulate the putting surface speeds of Augusta National. The Chambers Bay greens are more contoured, larger, more difficult than any at Augusta. The Chambers Bay bunkering and contouring around the greens was unlike any other tournament course. Extreme, rolling, grabbing, demanding, unforgiving, surpassing other championship venues.

The goal to have fine Fescue as the turf grass variety for the entire course, to compliment the naturally sandy links inspired site, had good intents. The design, by Bobby Jones and his colleagues, presented a majestic change to the cookie cutter sameness design at many tournament venues. The design layout did wonders with an otherwise nearly useless plot of glacial moraine sand and gravel deposits. The magnitude of play options, vertical terrain changes, massive bunkering, wildly contortionist greens and surrounds set a new standard for monumental design. The great courses are primarily a product of their site. The RTJ2 architects responded very well to the conditions presented by the site.

The use of Fescue grass through out was in keeping with the site conditions, climate, links style, sea side site design image.

However, the USGA obsession with fast putting speeds and tight fairway lies was incorrect for the conditions. Anyone with turf grass agronomic knowledge would – should – have known that it is physiologically and morphologically impossible to mow Fescue grass so close as to emulate Augusta putting speeds where dwarf creeping Bent Grass is used.

Mowing green surfaces close, very close, is done to create speed, provide faster putting conditions. But, Fescue has a limit to low mowing height, too low and then the basal canopy, the growth point dies. The desire for speed was clearly evident even on Thursday, the first day of competition. The putting surfaces were showing a brownish hue, not a crisp green color was a clear indicator of grass plant vigor decline. An absence of watering put added stress on the grass. The fairway and teeing surfaces showed signs of decline as well. The Fescue was dying from too close mowing.

POA annua

Another factor not originally considered, became an all influencing element that had direct and drastic impact on putting.

The Tacoma-Seattle area is ground zero to an indigenous, invasive form of grass, or weed, called Poa annua... Annual Blue grass. Cool, coastal, overcast, moist weather is Nirvana for Poa annua. Sahalee Country Club, Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point, Torrey Pines are but a few examples of coastal environment courses where Poa annua prevails.

In the seven years since opening, the indigenous Poa annua has been invading slowly but surely. The severity of the invasion was clearly visible from the early television coverage. Two greens rebuilt two years ago stood out as being mostly Poa free. The remaining green surfaces resembled a case of measles- random, irregular, circular splotches of darker green among the declining Fescue turf suffering from too close mowing and showing shock symptoms. This intermixing of two dissimilar grass species contributed to the uneven, wobbly path of too many putts. This diversity was highlighted by the unique growth habit of Poa annua.

Poa annua has the ability to sprout seed heads within a few hours of the morning green mowing action, where the Fescue would not. These seed heads extend above the mowing height. The seed heads become more prominent as the day progresses. The seed heads, reminiscent of tiny whitish pineapples, act as micro speed bumps, bollards or micro thumbs that can minutely deflect the roll of a ball not correctly or firmly enough stroked. How many putts missed the cup by the width of a hair? Sunday afternoon, the vigor of the Poa annua speed bumps did decidedly influence the outcome of play.

Chambers Bay should go to full Poa annua greens, keep the Fescue fairways, tees, but mow at a higher cutting height. The wonderful wispy, nasty Fescue roughs, the big bold vertical bunkering are hallmarks to preserve. Green speeds will be rather less with pure Poa annua turf, but most players will be relieved. Green speed was not the deciding factor this time. Irregular putting surfaces were the factor. The very contorted putting surfaces, tucked flag stick locations, off running contours, mounds and hollows, savage sand masses and teeing diversity can bring back full championship challenge conditions with the absence of stressed out Fescue.

There is a need for golf course design diversity. There is a need for more public and accessible golf.

Mr Robert Trent Jones Sr. turned heads nearly 50 years ago with the then unconventional Spyglass Hill monster at Pebble Beach. Today, Spyglass Hill is a calm course but it continues to be a heavily played formidable track.

I suggest that in a few years, Chambers Bay will be talked about in the same sentence as Pine Valley. Nice company! No one has ever said Pine Valley is an easy course to play – a top ten in the world private club.

Missing putts is part of golf. The recent USGA Senior Open in Sacramento, California saw relived players recovering from Chambers Bay. The course was dull, boring, uniform green surfaces, hardly defensive, but putts still did not drop.

We here in tropical Asia do not have to contend with Poa annua except in a few cool highland golfing locations. Poa annua cannot withstand the lowland tropical climate. Tropical turf managers (and Green Committees) should not even consider trying to achieve ultra fast putting speeds. The predominant hybrid Bermuda grass commonly used on putting surfaces will never accept the very low cut of Bent grass.

It is well documented that the faster the putting speed the higher the scores. Higher scores result in slower- longer rounds of golf. Slow play is a contributor to declining volumes of play and declining revenue as well.

Ronald Fream, Taman Molek, Johor, Malaysia.

Related story from the BBC:
US Open: Taking on controversial Chambers Bay course - the BBC's Iain Carter tries out the public golf course that caused so much controversy at the US Open, and discovers it takes some "imagination".


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