Chambers Bay Q&A: 'Someone is going to figure it out'
We are days away from the start of the 2015 U.S. Open, a championship hosted at a golf course few know much about. One person who knows everything about the course? Matt Allen, the general manager at Chambers Bay and a man who has held that position since 2008. Matt took a few minutes to chat with me about the evolution of Chambers Bay, what to expect during the four days of this championship and what he thinks it will take to win.
BACON: Chambers Bay is a golf course that has been built for a major championship. Since coming there in ’08, talk to us about the transformation you’ve seen as it’s been getting set for this pinnacle moment hosting the U.S. Open.
ALLEN: By the time I came, the U.S. Open and 2010 U.S. Amateur had been announced, and my first day on the job was one of the first Mike Davis and USGA staff visits after that announcement.
And we basically worked on the golf course in one form or another between then and September of 2013. … I think we’ve added about a dozen teeing grounds over that time. We’ve built three green complexes, added several bunkers, built a new practice range. We established the architectural edging to the bunkers throughout the golf course and then lastly, in September of 2013, we re-grassed the 10th and 13th greens.
It’s been in a state of construction really the entire time I’ve been here, and it’s one of the unique things about having a U.S. Open on a public access course that isn’t a multi-course facility.
BACON: I had a chance to play there about five years ago, and I played on some temporary greens. As the GM of Chambers Bay, is there a level of excitement post-U.S. Open to showcase this to the public without all the construction and evolution of the property for this championship?
ALLEN: Yeah, of course, of course there is. And anticipating what the increase in demand will be. The demand has been very good in 2013 and 2014, but we certainly expect to see a spike at least in the non-resident golfer this season post-U.S. Open and certainly next year in 2016. And certainly one of the goals of doing the things we did to prepare the golf course, reducing capacity and temporary greens … was to build a foundation of which we’d be positioned to have a great season.
Chambers Bay GM Matt Allen
BACON: Is there any say from your side of things in terms of setup? Do you and your team get to present ideas to the USGA, or is it mostly just the USGA coming in and presenting changes?
ALLEN: I have had the good fortune to be on every course walk that Mike Davis has done, and he is extremely collaborative, and not just with me but with our golf course superintendents and with representatives of Pierce County and (course designer) Robert Trent Jones and his team. Those entities all worked together, in particularly in all the construction and all the improvements to the golf course. And just the last two days Mike was gracious enough to invite a small group of us … along with he and his senior staff in a first effort to identify hole locations, so that was a fun thing to be a part of.
BACON: And coming in ’08, knowing this championship was going to be a big part of it, have you been surprised by how inclusive it has been for you and doing stuff like checking out hole locations?
ALLEN: For sure. I was fortune enough to been at Bandon Dunes for nine years before I came here, so I had a relationship with Mike and had worked a Curtis Cup and a U.S. Mid-Amateur, and, that’s not to say this has anything to do with me, but I think this is the way Mike is. He’s very gracious including people, and I assume it’s because he believes in the value of the collaboration. And, in addition, it makes people feel good.
BACON: You know this golf course as well as anyone. Can you point out some spots that you see as “can’t-miss” spots? Places that players, if they hit it here, they will maybe be forced to not only pitch out but to really sit and say, “I’m going to take my medicine and this will probably be a bogey?”
ALLEN: Yeah, that’s a really great question. Certainly any of the holes that are bordered by steep dunes. If you get it far left or right of the 10th hole, or up on the dune left or right of the 12th hole, those are places where the rough is thick and the lie is going to be awkward and you could lose a golf ball.
There are a couple of other places around greens that you wouldn’t want to miss, but generally, as you know, the fairways are pretty darn generous. Now, with the conditions that the golf course is going to be in, who knows? We’ve had very little rain in May, and mostly the month of June has been 80 degrees, so the golf course is as dry and firm as we could have possibly hoped it would be in June.
So we’re really excited about that, and the ability to be in control of the firmness and moisture and speed versus (being) more at the mercy of Mother Nature.
BACON: In your opinion, what are holes that you see throughout the round that will be both helpful to the player in the sense of birdie holes and also holes that guys could have a lot of trouble with in their round?
ALLEN: The meat of the golf course, for sure, is holes 4-7. The fourth hole probably plays from somewhere around 480 yards uphill, par-4. The fifth hole will play from about 495, downhill, to one of the neatest green complexes and some of the trickiest hole locations on the site. The sixth hole approaching 500 yards probably into any breeze we might get with a very narrow green target and then seven, playing just over 500 yards, uphill, with a tee shot that on the appropriate line requires a carry that is about 295 yards. I think the course has really wonderful rhythm, starting with some opportunities in Nos. 1-3, you have the gauntlet 4-7, and then as you get to the back nine, 12 is a birdie opportunity for sure, 13 will be a very long par-4, and then coming in, I think there is just going to be so much setup variability. The 16th hole can play 460, or it could play 290. I think that’s a place, at least during the U.S. Amateur, that played as a reachable par-4 one day, so there are just so many decisions to be made there. And then as you get to 16, 17 and 18, that’s really where the concentration of grandstands are -- so you have about 6,000 seats around the 18th hole, 2,500 to 3000 around the 17th hole and two big grandstands on 16, too. So whatever is happening on those holes, it’s going to be heard throughout the entire golf course.
BACON: And something to clarify for people: Chambers Bay is a championship golf course that maybe is as unknown as any we are used to seeing. Mike Davis came out and said that some tee boxes would be uneven, and people freaked out. Can you clarify to people what he means by that? Because, I’ve played Chambers a few times now, and the tee boxes, you wouldn’t notice them being uneven unless you brought your level to the golf course.
ALLEN: Exactly. Exactly. You said it. A lot of golf courses are built with tees that have only just however much slope is required to get water to move in direction of the drainage plan. Some of the tees at Chambers Bay have a little more slope than that. Almost every tee has a relatively flat area, and I think Mike’s point -- and I don’t want to speak for him, but I think his point was just about the uniqueness of the architecture. That we don’t have individual tee pads, we have these continuous, rolling shapes of turf that make the teeing grounds, and within those there are some opportunities to choose locations that could have a little more slope than normal, traditionally flat tees. But, to your point, and your own experience, I would not expect any tees to be a place that would be noticeably uneven.
BACON: And something else about the lay of the land, you mentioned the fifth green, and I agree, it’s one of the coolest on the property. Depending on some of the hole locations, you could see players chip on the greens. Do you expect to see those types of plays?
ALLEN: There are lots of interesting options there if you get on the wrong side of the bunker relative to the hole location. Chipping is certainly an option, putting beyond and using the slope particularly around the right side to come back down is another fun option. And there are some of those shots on the 12th green as well. If you have a ball in the front of the 12th green and a hole cut in the back, you could see somebody hit a hybrid off the putting surface.
I think the person who figures out the opportunities and options associated with using those shapes is certainly going to be more successful.
BACON: For people who have never been to Chambers, you mentioned the 16th, 17th and 18th with the grandstands. If you stand up by the upper ninth tee, you really can see almost every hole on the golf course. Augusta National is very famous for the roars. I have a feeling that’s going to be similar here simply because the plot of land is so accessible to all the holes, that if something crazy happens on 16, guys on 13 and 12 could hear it.
ALLEN: I think there is no question that’s going to happen, and I’m really excited to see it play out. The way noise travels down in the bowl that is the golf course is pretty wild, so, yeah, I think it could be a lot like Augusta, where you don’t need to be looking at a scoreboard to know somebody is doing something.
BACON: And you can’t get around the question about some of the players having, I wouldn’t say disgruntled comments about the golf course, but they’ve been questioning not only some of the setup ideas but what the course could entail. Do you feel players will leave frustrated, or will they leave happy with how the course and played and anticipating a championship coming back to Chambers Bay at some point?
ALLEN: I think the most important thing I know is someone is going to hoist the trophy, so someone is going to figure it out.
I think to the extent that people are frustrated about it, it’s such a unique golf course. It would be true of any course that the U.S. Open is going to for the first time that people need to spend extra time and need to learn it, but even more so here because it’s going to be unlike pretty much anything they’ve ever played, even in the United Kingdom, because there is so much more elevation change here than at most links courses.
That’s the feedback we’ve been getting this week from players, is just, I’ve heard the word fun a lot, which is great. Who knows how fun they’ll think it is once the greens are at speed and Mike starts setting some of those hole locations, but it’s pretty fun to watch a Tour player get their camera out. It’s unique, and I don’t know if we can really have a higher compliment paid to us a facility than to have someone that well-traveled say it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen.
BACON: Now I’m going to put you on the spot; first, knowing the course, knowing how the setup will be played and knowing where some of the hole locations might be: What would you predict a winning score would be come next Sunday?
ALLEN: I’d be crazy to give you a number, but I go back and forth as I see the golf course getting firmer and faster and crispier and thinking about the contours on those greens, I start to think that it’s going to be more difficult.
Not because of its length. Especially as things are firming up, I don’t think anybody is going to think it’s too long, and that’s in spite of it playing potentially up to and as long as 7,700 yards. Nobody during the U.S. Amateur thought it was too long, either. The golf course is so fast, the length is almost necessary. Weather will play such a huge part, and we watch the forecast like a hawk, and we’ve had the perfect weather for advanced weeks and prior to get things dried out. It looks like we will move into a more typical June weather pattern next week, kind of 70 degrees and cloudy and some variable weather days.
As much as 80s and sunny might be a nice visual for TV, we would certainly rather have a little wind one day from one direction, a little wind another day from another direction and maybe a chance for a shower. Those are the things that will really complement the architecture and the agronomy of the golf course to really make for a great championship, so all that put together, the U.S. Open seems to go a couple of different ways.
You have this right around par. Most players would say if you give me even par right now I’d forgo hitting a tee shot, and a couple of occasions, both last year and at Congressional, one guy really got hot, and that’s OK. Somebody shoots 9- or 10-under here, good on them.
BACON: I’m not going to ask you for a winner, but I do want to hear, what is one thing your eventual champion needs to do to win at Chambers Bay?
ALLEN: I think a handful of things. First, as Mike already said at media day, I think the favorites are the people that have spent the most time learning the golf course.
Beyond that, I really like somebody with good feel and imagination. I think probably there will be more fairways hit here than at a lot of U.S. Opens. That’s not to say that this course doesn’t test driving the golf ball, but I look at somebody like Jordan Spieth and how he handled Augusta and how smart he was about where he missed shots and how he talked a lot in press conferences after about how he’s a feel player and that he feels like that golf course lends itself to feel.
And I look at someone like Mickelson, who still has probably the best set of hands out there for hitting recovery shots around the green, and recovery shots will be different here. I just think he has the creativity around the greens to probably be a little step ahead of some others, and obviously as an operation we would gladly be associated with either of those guys as champions.
Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com's golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.