Mike Davis, the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, has heard the emotional critiques of the world’s best golfers as they assess the idiosyncratic layout of Chambers Bay Golf Course, the site of the U.S. Open.
“Some are absolutely effusive about this architecture,” Davis said Wednesday. “There are some that would say: ‘What are you doing conducting a British Open in the United States?’
“There are others that don’t know what to think.”
Davis smiled. His organization’s chief goal for the 18 holes along Puget Sound was to create an innovative version of a 120-year-old event. It appears to have been accomplished before a shot has been launched.
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“We want to see how they think on their feet,” Davis said.
After several days, if not weeks, of practice rounds, the national golf championship began Thursday, and the field is still plotting the appropriate approach to the 8-year-old Chambers Bay design.
“I really like the golf course,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “But I definitely think there’s going to be a lot of annoyance factor going on for the next few days. I know there are a few holes that have me scratching my head. But maybe that’s the point.”
Among the morning starters, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson were the best at figuring out the course, shooting 5-under-par 65s to take the lead in the clubhouse. Patrick Reed was one shot behind, followed by Matt Kuchar at 3-under-par 67.
Phil Mickelson, a six-time runner-up at the Open, started well, with three birdies on the front nine. But bogeys at Nos. 10, 13 and 14 led to a 1-under-par 69. Top-ranked Rory McIlroy, who has missed the cut at his last two tournaments, had two bogeys on his last three holes to finish at 2-over-par 72.
Cole Hammer, 15, who is the third youngest man to qualify for the Open, shot a 7-over-par 77.
The reigning Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods were among the late starters, teeing off after 5 p.m. Eastern.
When it comes to Chambers Bay, the key word to the USGA is flexibility. Since the golf course was designed with the intention of hosting a U.S. Open – and with the venerable architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. well versed in what the USGA likes – multiple holes were laid out so they could play completely differently from day to day. The USGA covets such adaptability because it wants to devise the most challenging test in major championship golf, and it knows that unpredictability can vex even the best golfers.
It is not just a matter of being merciless. The USGA believes a golf course that requires a variety of tee shots and manifold approaches to the greens is a strategically superior examination of golf skill.
“It won’t surprise me if on some holes you see a group of three teeing off, and somebody hits a driver, somebody hits a 3-wood and somebody hits an iron,” Davis said. “They’re thinking through their course management, and we would give that a big thumbs up.”
Some players faced with all these decisions might not respond quite the same way. But most of the best players know they will have to adapt or have no chance to be holding the champion’s trophy. For example, both the first hole and the 18th hole can be played as either a par-4 or a par-5, with the tees moved up or back to change the length by about 100 yards. The USGA plans to rotate the holes, with one playing as a par-4 and one as a par-5, from round to round. The total par of the two holes will always be 9.
For the first round Thursday, the first hole was a par-4 and the 18th a par-5.
“I like that they’re going to flip those holes, but it is probably going to have a lot of impact on your momentum beginning and finishing a round,” said Rory McIlroy, golf’s top-ranked player. “If the first hole plays as a par-5, it’s actually quite a gentle start to the round. But then if it plays as a par-4, it’s quite a tough start. And again, with 18, it might be reachable in 2, so you might feel like you can finish nicely. If it’s a par-4, maybe you feel the other way.”
Then there is the ninth hole, a par-3 with two different tees. The one used Thursday plays uphill, usually with a cross wind. The other tee plays from 227 yards downhill into a prevailing wind.
“We like those options; I’ve never seen anything like this where you had the same hole but it’s a completely different hole,” Davis said. “It’s truly like we’ve got five par-3s out there this week.”
There are a lot of firsts at Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open, including the first time the event has been contested in the Pacific Northwest. It is also the first time the entire course has been seeded with fine fescue grass, which has made it hard to identify where the fairways end and the greens begin. Because it can have implications for the rules – a player can mark, lift and clean his ball if it is on the green but not the fairway – the USGA has marked where the greens start with white dots around the green perimeters.
That was another first for McDowell.
“I’ve never seen a golf course where they had to spot the edge of the green for us,” McDowell said. “But then again, the fairways are faster than the greens in some places. Just a very interesting place.”
Interesting is one word being used by the field of 156. There are, without a doubt, other words being employed that are less complimentary.
The USGA is unbowed, and excited, although Davis did admit there was room for caution.
“There’s lots of flexibility to the set-up this year, but I will say this, that I don’t think – I hope we don’t overdo it,” Davis said Wednesday. “We want to make sure that it’s indeed a good and fair test.”