U.S. Open at Chambers Bay: not such a pretty sight

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The U.S. Open golf tournament is rarely pretty.  Which is much of its charm.  Wherever it’s played, the course is so diabolically tricked-up, pin locations so remote, greens so slick, rough so tall, that the greats of the game have a miserable time.  They appear as frustrated as weekend duffers.

I like the fact that when a golfer drives the ball, he’s as likely to hear a groundswell of groans as a volley of cheers.

Chambers Bay, just south of Tacoma, Wash., is a course that contrasts totally with the one where the first major of the year, the Masters, is played.  Augusta National is lush and emerald and has immaculate flowery landscaping.  It is long and demanding and difficult, but predictable.  The players know what to expect.

Chambers Bay, where this year’s U.S. Open was played, is like a creatively designed haunted house.  Chambers of horrors.  Although you know it will be frightful, you’re still surprised by what ensues.

Watching on television, we saw frequent views of the dazzling blue Puget Sound.  But otherwise the place looked like a training ground for the Marines.  It has terraces piled upon terraces, separated by steep cliffs.

The greens, which are more brown than green, are oddly tilted and have multiple humps topped by smaller bumps.   Henrik Stenson compared it to “putting on broccoli.”  

Groundskeepers say the broccoli effect is caused by a renegade grass, poa annua, intruding on the fine fescue that was planted.  During the Open, the putted golfballs often acted like jumping beans.

Members of Chambers Bay say the course is usually green but that the U.S. Golf Association turned it brown to make it more challenging.  And also to support its position that with water tables dropping throughout the West, golf courses should conserve water.

The defining moment of the 115th U.S. Open was, most appropriately, the ending.  Jordan Spieth, who rallied from a double-bogey at 17 to nail a short birdie putt at 18, was leader in the clubhouse.  By one shot.  But Dustin Johnson was lying 12 feet from the pin and gunning for an eagle that would make him the winner.

So Johnson three-putted, giving the 21-year-old Spieth his second major of the year, with a 5-under for the tournament.

It’s easy to say Johnson “choked.”  But he faced the daunting challenge that bedeviled everyone on just about every green.  The broccoli-like surface meant that if you did not strike the ball firmly, it would meander around and eventually stop short of the hole.

Spieth in the third round lost the lead by missing a couple of short putts that curled away because he didn’t strike hard enough.

But if you hit aggressively enough to keep the ball on line, and you missed the cup by, say, a quarter-inch, the ball would sail on by – four feet, maybe 10, on these scalded, wildly sloping greens.  Time and again we saw eagles and birdies transform into bogeys. 

Johnson did not shy away from the challenge at 18.  He putted strong.  A little too strong.  He left a 4-foot comebacker to force an 18-hole playoff.  But his putt for birdie lipped out. 

“I feel for Dustin,” Spieth said.  “It’s the same feeling I had on 17.”

He assumed his double-bogey on the mere par 3 would doom him.  Johnson, a big hitter (though an erratic putter) in the group behind him, should have been able to birdie the par 5 final hole, which began the tournament as a par 4.  The USGA changed it after the first round, when the never-outspoken Spieth said to grade it par 4 was “dumb.”

There were a lot of things about this golf tournament – or at least the course – that seemed dumb.

Gary Player, who knows a few things about major tournaments – as well as golf course design – said Robert Trent Jones Jr. did not do his best work when he drew the lines for Chambers Bay, which opened eight years ago.  But in defense of Jones, he started with a quarry and a gravel pit.  I know, you’d never guess.

Player said it’s “one of the worst courses I’ve seen in my 63 years as a pro.  . . . The man who designed this golf course had to have one leg shorter than the other.”

Because of the crazy contours, there were medical issues.  Spectators were falling on the tall, slippery dunes. 

The pros also had trouble staying upright.  Tiger Woods, after a first-round 80, tried to position himself on a steep brushy incline in the second round, when he fell backwards to take a most uncomfortable seat.

As for medical issues, you have to admire Jason Day, who was tied for the lead entering Sunday’s final round even though battling vertigo.  I can’t imagine any course more vertiginous than this one, with all its cliffs and undulations.  Just watching it on television almost made me dizzy.

Day, an Australian who’s 10th in the PGA standings, collapsed on the final hole of the second round.   He fainted on a big slope in front of the grandstand.  He rose a few seconds later and used a club as a crutch as he limped off the course, while his playing partner, Spieth, tried to shield him from photographers.

A slender 6-foot-1 Texan, Spieth is not one of the sluggers of the tour.  This course, being 7,900 yards long, did not favor him.  And he was anything but in command of it.

“I grinded,” he said.  “I didn’t have my best stuff.”

But of course, nobody did.  This, after all, was the U.S. Open.  It may allow you a flurry here or there — Louis Oosthuizen’s 29 for the final 9 to bring a tie with Johnson for second.  But the Open, wherever it’s played, will not let you have your best stuff for long.

Which makes it the most compelling – if inevitably polarizing — event in golf.  Except for the broccoli, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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