U.S. Open Mimicking Links Golf With ‘Green Ice’ of Chambers Bay

What would happen if the British Open was held in the U.S.?

We might get an idea of what it’d be like this week.

The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay golf course -- an eight-year-old municipal course built on a former quarry along the edge of the Puget Sound in University Place, Washington, comes as close to mimicking the Open Championship (as non-U.S. fans prefer to call golf’s oldest major) as any of the 114 previous U.S. Opens. Golfers have been complaining, as they often do about U.S. Open layouts that typically keep scores higher than other majors.

It’s all in the grass. The tournament will be the first U.S. Open played on a course covered in wall-to-wall fescue, turf typically found on British Open seaside courses.

“It’s like green ice, it’s so smooth, firm and fast,” course designer Robert Trent Jones III said.

Fescue, a thin, round-bladed grass that flourishes in maritime conditions, lacks the tackiness of typical bent, Bermuda, zoysia or rye grasses that cover most North American courses. With fescue, golf balls can skid or roll across it instead of sticking and stopping.

The grass will allow players to use more imagination on shots. Instead of flying golf balls through the air to reach the putting surfaces, a player can bound his ball along the ground - - or roll it with a putter from as far as 100 yards away (91 meters), if desired.

“It’s a true links-style golf course,” said caddie Joel Putnam, who will work for his brother, Michael, in the tournament, beginning Thursday.

First Shots

The Putnams, who grew up less than a mile from the course, know it as well as anyone. Michael was the guinea pig called upon to hit the first shots on the course before it was open to the public. Joel has caddied more than 500 rounds at Chambers.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Michael Putnam said. “A lot of guys are going to hate it. Some guys are going to embrace it. If you’re expecting to play Oakmont, Congressional or Pinehurst or Pebble, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Ryan Moore, another Washington state-born U.S. PGA Tour pro, said any comparison to other links courses in the U.S., such as Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits or California’s Pebble Beach Golf Links, are misguided -- all because of the grass.

“If you make a course like Chambers and put bent grass on it, it’s still an aerial game,” Moore said. “It becomes Whistling Straits. It looks like a links course but it’s not a links course in any way. You can’t hit a bump and run out there to save your life. They wanted to avoid that and make it a real links challenge. It’s a different type of golf. It’s not what we play week in and week out.”

Marine Layer

Fescue grass can’t be used everywhere. It thrives in places like the British Isles, New Zealand or areas of the U.S. Pacific Northwest blanketed by the cooler marine layer of air. In hot conditions, the grass can dry up and turn brown, as it did when the U.S. Amateur was played at Chambers in August 2010. The grass is slightly greener in June, a transitional month.

Unlike most British Open courses, which are laid out along relatively flat coastline terrain, Chambers Bay is a comparative mountain range. There is an elevation drop of about 200 feet from the main public entrance down to the 250-acre venue’s lowest point.

“It’s just extremely massive,” said Greg Norman, who will work as an analyst for Fox Sports 1. “This is not a traditional golf course.”

Necessary Play

The course is so unique that Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, which stages the tournament, proclaimed that only golfers who have studied the course at length and played it numerous times stand a chance at winning.

“The idea of coming in and playing two practice rounds and having your caddie just walk it and using your yardage book, that person’s done,” Davis said in May. “Will not win the U.S. Open.”

The comments drew widespread criticism from PGA Tour players and caddies. Golfers including Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter complained before they saw the course. Ryan Palmer, who played the course in April, told USA Today after his round that the greens are so unpredictable, luck will be a factor.

“Put a quarter in the machine and go for a ride,” he said.

Player complaints about a U.S. Open setup aren’t new, from griping about Winged Foot in 1974 -- where Hale Irwin’s winning score was 7-over par -- to criticism of baked-out greens during the final round of the 2004 championship at another venerable New York course, Shinnecock Hills.

One player -- the man who hit the very first shots on the course -- smiled at Davis’s proclamation.

“It’s perfect,” said Michael Putnam, who will hit the first ball of the tournament Thursday morning. “I’ve played it about 30 times. That means I’m going to win. It will be me against five people, maybe, if that’s the truth.”