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Chambers Bay golf course more than lives up to its U.S. Open-host hype

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. - It's easy to see why the blue blazers of the United States Golf Association fell in love with Chambers Bay. It's a postcard they encouraged the painting of, a scene that guarantees the 2015 U.S. Open will be one of the most talked about ever, with a good chance of far surpassing even the buzzed over Bethpage Black's Open debut in 2002.

Chambers Bay Golf Course
Chambers Bay rolls out like a postcard toward Puget Sound.
Chambers Bay Golf CourseChambers Bay Golf Course - DunesChambers Bay Golf Course - Concrete RemainsChambers Bay Golf Course - No. 15

Make no mistake, this is a golf course that books will be written about.

Just looking down over Robert Trent Jones II's wide open links design from the high hill that runs along the entire course can invoke mouth drops. On a sunny day, the blue water gleams in Puget Sound, all the grasses, dips, hills and massive sand dunes in the fairways roll out before you, and the sight of everyone walking harkens back to golf's better times.

When the U.S. Open gets here, there figure to be passenger trains running on the tracks below 16 and 17, delivering fans from Seattle (about an hour's drive away). A cruise ship or two will be anchored in the sound, providing hotel rooms with a view. Sailboats will bop in the water and the planned-for amphitheater right next to the course will likely rock with concerts when play is done for the day.

None of this on its own would be enough to demand you go out of your way to play Chambers Bay. Any experienced golfer knows there are plenty of courses that are played because they're on some type of rote checklist rather than supremely enjoyed: See Torrey Pines in many cases and the PGA West Stadium Course for starters.

Don't fear though. Chambers Bay elevates above even its hype and USGA schoolgirl fawning. It's not a must-play because the blue blazers awarded it a U.S. Open before it was even open a year. It's worth making a special trip for because it delivers the kind of golf day that keeps the game going.

If you love golf, you play it to play courses like Chambers Bay.

You're walking (and you have to walk unless you have a medical exemption) down holes where the usual sharp boundaries between tee boxes, fairways and greens are almost nonexistent, replaced by one rugged natural look instead (the grass is often the same on all three just cut different heights). A caddie is lugging your bag, walking at your side if you're smart (less than 50 percent of Chambers Bay's players employ one of the caddies for their round). The fescue grass sways in the breeze, the monster sand dunes that almost look like rock walls in many places squeeze the fairways.

Few things in golf are more annoying than courses that aren't really links courses marketing themselves that way. Well, Chambers Bay is true links golf.

Those who've been to Ireland numerous times will tell you it's the closest thing they've seen to the feel of a Ballybunion being replicated in the United States.

"I've told the guys we should cancel our trip to Ireland next week, save 10 grand and just play here for a week," San Franciscan Marte Bassi said, laughing.

Bassi and three of his buddies, all members of past and future U.S. Open host Olympic Club (2012), came to Seattle just to play Chambers Bay. They played it three times in two days after having only planned a single round.

They probably would have played a fourth time if sunlight hadn't simply run out on them.

They are seeing more and more golfers like this in the Chambers Bay clubhouse, guys who are used to traveling to play the very best.

"The volume of phone calls just went up a huge amount when the news about the U.S. Open got out," Assistant Professional Zac Keener said.

To accommodate the rush, Chambers Bay went from allowing 30-day advance tee times to 90-day advance tee times. "Just from talking to people it was hard for them to plan a trip only 30 days out," Keener said.

That's another thing that makes Chambers Bay a sharp departure from many courses basking in a good publicity wave. The staff actually wants you - and you, and you and you - to play the course. This may be the most welcoming and open high-end golf course in the world, with walking paths right through the course that anyone who wants to stroll on can take.

So you'll see people from the neighborhood in their jogging suits and curious onlookers who may not even play golf coming out to check out what's behind all this fuss.

The Verdict on Chambers Bay

Chambers Bay is Al Pacino in "The Godfather," Mark Messier in his guarantee game, John F. Kennedy at the microphone. It's as good as good gets. Former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green may be YouTube famous for his "you can't crown things prematurely" rant, but go ahead and crown Chambers Bay now.

This time, the USGA's right. It's golf theater at its finest.

If there are any quibbles with Chambers, it's that its par 3s can have you shooting similar shots down. But even there, the settings are different enough to hold your attention. No. 15 has the lone tree on course well behind its green (the tree got attacked by some prankster louts in the middle of the night, and looks like it has a huge ax chop in it now). The par-3 17th puts you high above the water and even closer to the railroad tracks that border the course before Puget Sound and have trains rolling by.

Then you get to No. 18 - a daunting par-5 finisher that starts with you teeing off along the hulking concrete remains of the old sorting bins from the gravel quarry that used to be on this once largely flat site, providing something of an Escape From New York scene. It ends with a green that seems to have as many levels as Dungeons and Dragons.

"I think it's better than Bandon Dunes," said golfer Gene Pretti, who came in from Lake Tahoe to play Chambers Bay. "They're both on the ocean, but I think this place has better holes."

You're not going to argue.

Seattle area hotels near Chambers Bay

Chambers Bay is actually much closer to Tacoma (20 minutes) than Seattle, which makes it a very easy drive from the airport. Unless you're staying at the airport though, you're much better off with a hotel in Seattle than Tacoma.

One of the better ones can be found in the trendy Microsoft-dominated suburb of Bellevue. The Bellevue Club Hotel is one of those places that wants you to know how trendy it is, but you're rewarded with super clean, comfortable rooms and a great fitness club area.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • latest Chambers Bay review

    reid wrote on: May 26, 2009

    A brand new review was posted today at reidwegstravel.com, complete with the latest photos of the course and its conditions.


  • Chambers Bay

    Denise Dyer wrote on: Jun 17, 2008

    There ARE great hotels in Seattle and Bellevue - and there ARE great hotels in Tacoma too! The Hotel Murano is not only gorgeous, but comfortable and convenient to Chambers Bay. The Marriott, located within walking distance of the Murano is also a great place to stay.


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