In The Eye of the Beholder

I loved this year’s US Open, and I loved its venue, Chambers Bay – warts and all.

Yes, perhaps the contours are overdone. And the greens would make any self-respecting municipal course blush. And the various course configuration changes from day to day (changes in hole par and radical relocations of teeing grounds) lent no sense of continuity to the proceedings. And an on-course spectator likely found the course viewing areas difficult to navigate.

Jason Day collapsed on the course, causing Greg Norman to turn into a TV doctor.

Tiger Woods shot 80 in the first round and was not the high man in his group.

The eventual winner, Jordan Speith, finished birdie/double-bogey/birdie.

A fire broke out in a nearby warehouse.

And while we’re at it, FOX’s debut as a golf broadcasting entity was decidedly mixed. There were certain aspects of the coverage that were welcome, such as extensive use of the shot tracker and sharp graphics depicting distances to hazards and greens. Additional microphones were able to pick up player/caddy conversations – and at time one could hear the ball rolling across the crusty greens. On the other hand, the camera person handling approach shots to the greens at times seemed to be taking advantage of Washington State’s marijuana laws, and the commentary team showed its inexperience throughout the week. Norman was at his best in analyzing individual player swing traits, but was otherwise a rather bland presence. Too much time was spent following players from hole to hole and not enough on actual golf shots. And – while this may have been somewhat cruel – I thought Joe Buck and company lost a golden opportunity when Dustin Johnson suffered his inglorious fate on the final hole in not querying Norman on what Johnson might be feeling, as the Great White Shark’s own meltdowns have been well chronicled.

Most US Open courses are par 72 courses that have been converted to par 70, featuring fairways so narrow that the participants almost feel the need to walk single file through them. The rough is often grown to calf-length (and sometimes more), more often than not leaving players no other option than to hack their way back into play. And the USGA pretty much mandates that by the conclusion of the tournament, the greens are, if not dead, certainly on life support.

Ah yes, the greens at Chambers Bay were the topic of many an unpleasant discussion. Their fescue grasses were invaded by poa annua and resembled a really bad countertop over which a potential homebuyer on HGTV would have a conniption. Players could not decide if the putting surfaces resembled broccoli (Henrick Stenson) or cauliflower (Rory McIlroy). Billy Horshel threatened to beat one green into submission, and after his round said he was “disappointed” with the USGA (this, by the way, after a closing round of 67). Ian Poulter, never one to hold back, accused the USGA of “lying” about the condition of the greens (and included a photo on his Twitter feed as evidence). Brent Snedekker, making a late charge on Sunday, struck a putt that, after cruising along for about 15 feet, hit something that caused it to take what looked like a 3 inch hop before stopping well short of the hole. And Gary Player called the whole thing a “disgrace.”

And by the way – with the possible exception of Player, who may have been using the event to take a dig at course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr.- the players had every right to bitch about the greens. If someone comes into your workplace and defecates on your desk, you wouldn’t be happy about it. One could make the “it’s the same for everybody” argument, but what happened to Snedekker was criminal.

Having said all that . . .

If the goal of a US Open course is to test a player’s patience while protecting par, then Chambers Bay fit the bill and then some. It just didn’t do so in the conventional sense. Its deceptively wide fairways invite aggressive play, but much like The Old Course, there are preferred target lines to set up the best possible approach shots. The wild green contours made for some creative greenside shot making. I watched Ricky Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen (who, after an opening round 77, came back with consecutive rounds of 66 and on Sunday, damn near stole the title with an outrageous 29 on the back nine) play from the same greenside area and take two completely different circuitous paths to the hole; both of them wound up about 5 feet away. And – much like at Pinehurst #2 last year – unless a player was extremely wild, one could usually play from the massive fairway bunkers and scrubby rough if he missed the fairway.

And, taking a page from Augusta National, the back nine setup on Sunday definitely encouraged some daring play, with the two drivable par-4’s and particularly 18 (set up as a par 5 on Sunday, as it should have been all tournament), which produced Speith’s full tilt 3-wood from 286 yards to set up his go-ahead birdie . . . and for poor Johnson (who is quietly becoming this generation’s Greg Norman), who hit two perfect shots (a booming drive and a 5 iron on the 608 yard hole) to within 12 feet. The putt he faced was slippery, and he had had putting issues throughout the back nine (caused by faulty stroke that was pretty visible even to a casual observer). But he also made a clutch birdie at 17 and at worst looked to force an 18 hole playoff with Speith by two putting. He even got a look at Jason Day’s comebacker, which was on the same line as his own putt that proved to be his undoing. He . . . just . . . plain . . . missed.

Fox failed to show Speith’s immediate reaction when Johnson missed the crucial putt (although they did get a nice shot of DJ holding his infant son while walking with fiancé Paulina Gretzky, which I suppose was something of a salve for him), but all Jordan could say was “I’m in shock.” He’s also half way to golf’s Grand Slam, although he refused to take Holly Sonders’s bait regarding that topic. The kid is amazingly grounded, but you can tell that the Open had taken its toll on him. Which it should.

Hazeltine National hosted the US Open in 1970, where Dave Hill proclaimed that “they wasted 80 acres of good farmland building this course.” Improvements were made, and it has since hosted another US Open and two PGA Championships. Next year, the Ryder Cup will be played there. Fix the greens and shave off a few rough edges (but not too many), and Chambers Bay should get another shot as a major championship venue. It’s too damned entertaining not to. And any course that gives you a view of Mt Rainer and Puget Sound can’t be all bad.

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