The fate of this year’s U.S. Open lies in the hands of a 50-year-old New Jersey man whose biggest accomplishment as a competitive golfer was winning the 1982 Pennsylvania state junior championship.
Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association’s executive director, is in charge of setting up Chambers Bay for the event, which is being staged for the first time at the course in University Place, Washington. The undulating links-style layout sits on the edge of Puget Sound and was built with a variety of playing options and tee boxes that has made preparing harder than usual.
Davis said Wednesday that players won’t learn the exact course setup until the morning of each round. The second major of the golf season begins Thursday.
“We don’t know, none of us, what Mike is going to do and when he’s going to do it,” three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods said. “We don’t know what tees he’s going to move up, what tees he’s going to leave back, and to what pin locations. It’s unlike any other major championship I’ve ever had to prepare for. There’s three or four different tee shots on almost every hole.”
One of the most puzzling scenarios for players involves the course’s first and 18th holes, which can both be played as par-4s or par-5s, depending on where the tees are placed. Davis said the setup could change every day.
“All the entry form says is we’re going to give the trophy away to the low 72-hole score,” Davis said after some players criticized the plan. “If you can just get past the par part, we’re just playing the holes different on a different day. It’s no different than moving the tee markers up on a par 4 versus having them way back. In this case, it just happens to change the par on the hole.”
The downhill first hole can be played as a 598-yard par 5 or a 496-yard par 4. As a par 5, it’s a “gentle start to the round,” said Rory McIlroy, golf’s No. 1-ranked player. As a par 4, “It’s quite a tough start.”
McIlroy, a 25-year-old Northern Irishman who won the 2011 U.S. Open, is among players who tempered criticism and referred to the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course as “interesting.” Masters Tournament winner Jordan Spieth described it as “inventive” and said he is embracing the uniqueness.
“You can use your imagination a lot here,” Spieth said.
Along with the uncertainty of tee locations, the course’s severely sloping greens require creativity and patience, as two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson found out in a practice round, when he sank a long putt off a steep gradient with his back turned to the hole.
Phil Mickelson compared Chambers Bay to the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.
“When you play St. Andrews, you don’t know exactly where to hit it,” the 45-year-old left-hander said. “Well, same thing here with Chambers. The first time you play it, balls are bouncing everywhere off the hillside and ending 60, 80, 100 feet opposite of where you thought. Knowing how to play it gives you a much bigger margin of error.”
Davis, in his fifth year as the USGA’s executive director, used a simpler way to describe his course setup plans.
“To come to a brand new golf course is neat,” he said. “This is going to be a very different U.S. Open test, but a good one. I hope we don’t overdo it.”