Relatively unknown Chambers Bay will be stern U.S. Open test
The USGA added an element of the unknown when it opted to stage this year's 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
It's a lengthy course that demands accuracy off the tee and flawlessly executed approach shots into largely undulated putting surfaces.
Like Bethpage Black when it first hosted the U.S. Open in 2002, Chambers Bay is off the beaten path for the USGA, but it's a course designed to stage a major championship. An already challenging course has added several deep bunkers and intimidating dunes framed with thick rough.
And to think only 15 years ago, gravel was being mined from a pit on the site that is now hosting the U.S. Open.
The star attraction of this championship could be Chambers Bay itself, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design with wild changes in elevation, stunning views of Puget Sound and — get this — no rough around the greens.
In fact, there will be markings so players are clear when the fairway ends and the green begins.
Those who can drive the ball straight can find sub-par rounds. But trouble off the tee could make it difficult to survive the cut.
“I don't think Chambers Bay will disappoint,” said Frank Nobilo, a Golf Channel analyst. “It is going to be radically different from a lot of the U.S. Opens that are played on the East Coast: Winged Foot, Oakmont and Merion.''
Nobilo likens Chambers Bay to a British Open links course. The wind likely will dictate the shape and trajectory of many approach shots, particularly short irons into the more elevated greens.
“This is going to probably look more linksey than this year's Open Championship in some regards,” Nobilo said.
Notah Begay, a Golf Channel analyst, said familiarity probably will play a significant role in the outcome.
“I think there are a lot more questions than answers right now in just my discussions with a variety of players and their expectations for some of them that have had a few rounds around Chambers Bay,” Begay said. “I think the players that had a chance to play the U.S. Amateur there a few years ago are going to be at a monumental advantage. They'll know how to position certain shots and how to play certain holes.”
Fox Sports was awarded a 12-year deal, starting this year, to televise the U.S. Open. There will be different graphics and gadgets, but what's seen isn't the biggest difference. Johnny Miller's blunt analysis was a big part of the U.S. Open telecast when NBC handled the broadcast rights the past 20 years. Those duties now fall to Greg Norman.
Tale of the Tiger
This is the seventh anniversary of the last major Tiger Woods won, and there would not appear to be any relief in sight.
Woods hasn't won a tournament since August 2013, and he hasn't finished in the top 10 in his past 14 tournaments worldwide. He is No. 181 in the world. The last time his world ranking was that bad, Jordan Spieth had just turned 3.
Bid for a slam
Phil Mickelson has been relatively quiet this year. He was runner-up at the Masters, but no one was going to catch Jordan Spieth. Still, this is the U.S. Open. This is the only major keeping Lefty from becoming the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam (Rory McIlroy missed his chance at the Masters). Mickelson believes he has at least a couple of more chances in him. Maybe this will be one of them.
That sound is more likely to come from the players than any birds. Chambers Bay is getting plenty of attention from players who never have seen it. There's a chance teeing grounds will not be level. There are enough contours in the fairway to make bounces unpredictable.
“Some of the players will absolutely embrace the architecture and embrace the golf course setup,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “Others will chirp.”
Par is just a number
Par could be two numbers on No. 1 and No. 18. For the first time, the USGA plans to change par on two holes during the championship. On the days that No. 1 is a par 5, No. 18 will be a par 4. When No. 1 is a par 4, the closing hole will be a par 5. Either way, it adds up to a par 70.
In another U.S. Open anomaly, the only tree on the golf course is a Douglas fir located on a hill above the 15th green. Still, that's one more tree than the next two major championship sites: St. Andrews (British Open) and Whistling Straits (PGA Championship).
Don't expect to see fans four-deep lining every fairway at Chambers Bay. With the rugged dunes and 100-foot changes in elevation, this might be the toughest course to walk all year. The USGA is encouraging fans to find a grandstand, which would allow them to see several holes at one time. Remember, there are no trees to block anyone's view.
Webb Simpson remains the only player to use an anchored stroke (belly putter) to win the U.S. Open (Olympic Club, 2012). This will be the last U.S. Open that long putters pressed against a player's body are allowed. They will be banned Jan. 1.
Players to watch
Jason Day: Might be the Australian version of Rickie Fowler or vice versa: loads of talent, wonderful manners, good performances in the majors and questions why he doesn't win more.
Rickie Fowler: Showed off his full potential at The Players Championship, not because he won but how he won. He was fearless and confident and took on every shot. And he got rid of that “overrated” label. He finished in the top 5 in all four majors last year — only Woods and Jack Nicklaus have done that.
Dustin Johnson: Yes, distance will matter at Chambers Bay. Johnson has come close in the past, but his improved driving accuracy makes him a threat to get that elusive major championship.
Henrik Stenson: The Swede typically is a high-ball hitter. He's powerful off the tee and a supreme ball-striker.
Martin Kaymer: He became a complete player by taking some 18 months to develop a full arsenal of shots. Still to be determined is whether he can handle a ground game that will be required at Chambers Bay.
Phil Mickelson: He gets his second shot at the career Grand Slam, but he hasn't won since the 2013 British Open. That's the bad news. He was runner-up in the past two majors. And he's unpredictable. That's why he could deliver the most magical story off Puget Sound.
Rory McIlroy: The world's No. 1 player has had his ups and downs this season, but Chambers Bay could be suited perfectly for his swing. More than anything, he has the power to conquer a course that's likely to beat up most of the field.
Justin Rose: He's not flashy, but he wins. Over the past five years, only Rory McIlroy (11) and Tiger Woods (eight) have more than Rose's seven victories on the PGA Tour.
Adam Scott: The swing still looks good. The results have been pedestrian. He is bringing back caddie Steve Williams for the U.S. Open and other majors this summer. He was No. 1 in the world going into the U.S. Open last year. Now he's not even in the top 10.
Jordan Spieth: The reigning Masters champion had a couple of rough spots since trouncing the field at Augusta National. Unlike most of the favorites, Spieth can lean on his putter when all else fails.
Bubba Watson: There's no doubt that the lengthy par 4s — including the 534-yard 13th and 500-yard sixth — will generate big numbers. If the two-time Masters champion can keep the ball in the fairway, he can make birdies.
Tiger Woods: In recent months, he has been ordinary at his best. In normal times, a course like Chambers Bay would stoke his imagination. These are not normal times. Getting into contention would be a surprise.
The U.S. Open will be held at Oakmont Country Club in 2016. It will be the ninth time the national championship is held at one of the world's finest courses. In 2007, Angel Cabrera shot a final-round 69 to hold off Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods by one shot to win his second major.
Holes to watch
No. 4 (480 yards, par 4): This uphill hole is the start of a four-hole gauntlet that necessitates a grinder's mentality. Most everyone will feel relief walking off the putting surface with a par.
No. 6 (500 yards, par 4): An already mammoth hole has a bigger bite because it typically plays into a breeze. To compound the problem, a narrow green makes this hole tough to negotiate with even a mid-iron shot.
No. 16 (460 yards, par 4): This hole will change from round to round. It'll play as much as 460 yards one day, then transform into a reachable 290-yard par 4 the next. The field will be forced to make a number of critical decisions, especially if they're on the first page of the weekend leaderboard.