The gravel pit now known as Chambers Bay was everything the USGA wanted – and then some. The 7,700 plus yard course, the longest in U. S. Amateur history, played hard, fast and firm. There was much grumbling about “fairness’, and “extreme” was a word used quite a bit. But, per usual, most of grumbling was in direct proportion to your score. Bear this in mind: with a ticket to match play on the line in the second round, Kentucky teenager Justin Thomas shot 69 to advance and a 40-something high school teacher, Todd White, shot 69 to qualify for match play.
It was clear that much of the field – the American kids – had never seen anything remotely close to Chambers Bay. And so they had no idea how to play it, and they became very frustrated that they could not impose their power ball-in-the-air game on this track. A USGA official related this story to me from the pre-tournament players’ banquet: He was seated at a table with eight college age players. Four were grousing about the course, four were tight lipped. When quizzed, the four quiet kids turned out to be international players. The four complainers were all Americans.
I think all American college golfers should spend a year abroad in Scotland, studying Golf Origins 101.
Fairness seems to be a particularly American expectation on the golf course. Never have I heard so many players state that they hit “quality” golf shots, only to see the ball go somewhere other than intended. These players watch too much PGA Tour golf on TV. In Great Britain, from which Chambers Bay claims its heritage, fairness is not a word in the golf vocabulary.
Not coincidentally, it was a pretty good week for the mid-amateurs in the land of the flatbelly. Forty-seven-year-old Jeff Wilson was the medalist, and ten other mid-ams advanced, one of the largest groups to make match play in recent memory. These more worldly-wise golfers were not as intimidated by Chambers Bay. When the man-to-man stuff started, however, the mids washed out. Only Skip Berkmeyer got out of the first round.
There were two stunning numbers out of the first day: 62 and 47. The 62 was a 10-under-par score Wilson posted at the Home Course — the other medal play qualifying site — and 47 is his age. Wilson is a USGA medal machine, having won five of them, including two at the Amateur.
Standing in front of the scoreboard area, looking due west, is one of the most incredible vistas in the game, anywhere. In the distance, you could see white-capped mountains. Closer in, islands with towering rich green evergreen trees were visible. Still closer, the azure waters of the Puget Sound. And then the golf course itself, with every shade of brown and yellow imaginable. An incredible sight. Chambers Bay is the poster child for the USGA “brown is green movement.” It must be seen to be believed.
One of the great scenes in the American amateur game is the round two wait at the main scoreboard. Players, caddies, girlfriends and family members wait nervously to see where the cut will fall. Beer flows freely (except among the players) and strobe lights are brought in, anticipating a dark final rendering. It’s happy hour for some, not so happy for others.
Slow play reared its ugly head on Day One, as it usually does. The pace on Monday at Chambers Bay was, especially later in the day, funereal. Threesomes took almost six hours to play 18 holes. The USGA handed down 12 penalties to 12 different players, but this wasn’t enough tough love. Tuesday was better, but not by much. Players were complaining that they had to run from green to tee. If they didn’t spend 45 seconds laboring over every shot, if they were ready to play when it was their turn to play, they wouldn’t have to dash off the green.
Robert Trent Jones Jr., Chambers Bay’s architect, was on hand to observe how his baby performed. He was rightly proud of what he saw. This course was intended to evoke the traditions of links golf in Scotland and Ireland, and Jones nailed it. What he and his team created from the ruins of a gravel mine is unlike anything else in America. Scoring requires inordinate patience and the ability to control ball flight. The fairways are generous, the rough barely penal. All the action is around the greens. The undulations are both obvious and mysterious. Those who chose the right angle of attack posted good scores. Those who were able to use the ground advanced. Those that flew the ball to the pin went home after 36 holes, wondering why their ball didn’t even leave a mark on the fescue greens.
Chambers Bay is an American treasure, but it has a global following. The original transportation van used to transport players from the golf shop to the first tee has a map on the back wall, with pins stuck in the homes of visiting players. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are among the troubled lands that sent golfers to this golf mecca. Only Venezuela was missing among rogue states that have been represented at Chambers Bay.
Note to John Daly: Max Cohen, from Los Angeles, shot 90-89-179 to miss match play by 30 shots. He did not quit in the middle of his second round.