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Making a Champion

The Story Behind Chambers Bay

How does an unused sand quarry in Pierce County, Washington magically transform into not only one of the country’s finest examples of traditional links golf, but the host of a U.S. Open—with the championship awarded only eight months after opening? As implausible as it may sound, the story of how Chambers Bay came to host the 2015 U.S. Open is as unique as the course itself.

As part of a reclamation master planning process for the site of a 610-acre former sand and gravel quarry, Pierce County determined that a municipal golf course, incorporated with open parkland space, beach access and walking trails, would be the best use of the public land. However, rather than try to compete with the many existing, good-quality regional courses, the County envisioned a world-class course that would attract players from around the country and perhaps, one day, provide the opportunity to host a major championship event. "One day” would prove to be sooner than any one could have ever imagined.

Partnering with the design firm of Robert Trent Jones II, Pierce County gave the architects a blank canvas and a mission: build a course worthy of the site’s captivating scenery and of the very best players in the world. At this same time, the USGA was eagerly seeking to hold a U.S. Open in Washington, a state that has never hosted golf’s toughest major. By working closely with the USGA from the first shovel of sand, Pierce County created a course that was tailored to their highest standards. As a result, Chambers Bay will be just the third municipal course to host a U.S. Open, and the youngest to host a U.S. Open in almost 30 years.

With its natural sand, proximity to Puget Sound and a climate reminiscent of the birthplace of the game, a traditional links-style design evocative of the great Scottish courses was chosen for Chambers Bay. The decision to make the course walking-only freed it from cart paths, opening up its dimensions to match the grand scale of the property. Features like a 70-foot tall sand dune covering seven acres, fairways the width of a football field and 60-foot long tees make this a dramatic course, with elevation changes, bunkers and greens providing character and playability. Chambers Bay may be the closest recreation of a Scottish linksland course this side of the Atlantic, giving the 2015 U.S. Open a look and style of play more like that of a British Open than the traditional East Coast country club courses of past U.S. Opens.

Because they didn’t need to worry about traffic wear from carts, the team was able to use fescue grass from tee to green. In addition to providing a fast, firm surface that is fun to play, fescue’s deep roots make it incredibly drought tolerant, able to go days without supplemental watering.

The choice of grass was just one of Pierce County’s many commitments to protecting the environment. The earthmoving was accomplished in the most environmentally responsible way possible, while drainage systems were installed that lead to sediment retaining ponds, bioswales and filtration basins for natural filtration by plants and soil. Nothing flows off the site or into the ground water. This commitment to sustainable building and maintenance led Chambers Bay to be certified as a Silver Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International, the first golf course in the Northwest to receive such recognition.

With its limited use of water and minimalist maintenance philosophy, Chambers Bay is a poster child for sustainable golf. While the USGA chose the course primarily as a challenging test for the world’s greatest golfers, Chambers Bay will also help set an example of the USGA’s "brown is the new green” ethos, encouraging other courses to move away from lush but water-intensive landscaping that is increasingly becoming untenable in communities facing competing demands for water, particularly in the water-starved Southwest.