This weekend will mark the first time that the U.S. Open is being played in Washington state, as the PGA makes use of Chambers Bay, the eight-year-old public course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. This is the first-ever PGA event at the course, so many of these poor pros will still be getting used to the contours and the conditions as they try to vie for the season’s second major.
You will hear, both in the lead-up to and during the event, the phrase “links course,” ala St. Andrews and some of the other most famous venues for The Open Championship. You probably have a general sense of this meaning that Chambers Bay somehow resembles more European courses. But what it really means, in the strictest sense of the definition is that it is a course on which, to be successful, your shots need to be “linked” together, both in purpose and execution. Players have to approach every hole with a plan, and be prepared to deviate from it immediately if even one of their shots is the slightest off course.
Long holes can play short or short holes can play long, with rapid changes in elevation, distances being controlled by the layout of the holes, and players being presented with a series of distinct landing zones for each shot. When this course first opened, it was described as having no water and a single tree.
So maybe the water and the tree do nothing but add to the scenery, but they do it well. And there are plenty of other challenges provided by hitting every shot from uphill or downhill or sideways lies, onto elevated greens that slope away in every direction. Watching the action, you will see the biggest greens you’ve ever even heard of (8,000 sq. ft.+ in some cases), which might sound nice until you see the way they break and drop. You will have a 7,500 sq. foot green with a target area about 20 feet square. You will see greens that go on for yards, and players putting onto them from the fairway. Short games are mitigated when the best chipper in the world is afraid of a shot missing by a couple of feet and rolling for 50 more.
No one really truly knows exactly what it will take to win at a course like Chambers Bay – we’ve never seen PGA professionals try, in the first place, and in the second place, it’s not as if only one type of player has ever won at St. Andrews. Putting is going to be difficult for everyone, so it’s likely more important to be able to leave your approach tight than to hit a 20-footer to save par. The landing zones on the fairway are going to be hard to hit no matter what, so maybe scrambling and hitting from the rough are more important than accuracy off the tee. There is sand everywhere, and a slope on every hole, so you have to be able to handle that – no choice.
More than anything else, they are going to need control. Mental control to deal with the stress of playing on a course that challenges you in such unexpected ways, and, more importantly of course, control of the ball, especially with iron-play. This is not necessarily a simple matter of “getting up and down” – the tiny landing zones here don’t exist exclusively on greens, and sometimes pinpoint accuracy will be as important with a long iron as it is with a wedge. One stat I like to capture this ability – at least to an extent – is “Going for the Green – Hit Green %.” This at least approximates the ability to take whatever the course is giving you, and drill a target from a distance, no matter what club you have in your hands. And worst case, you could certainly find worse ways to help justify your faith in Bubba Watson (2nd in this category) or Lee Westwood (T3). Another that might be useful with greens this large and the pressure on players to putt from the fairway is “3-Putt Avoidance.” Anything that seems to imply the ability to lag a long putt close could certainly come in handy on this course.
No matter what method you use to pick your lineups, I hope your lineup is good enough to keep you interested, and that the golf is good enough to keep you entertained. Good luck.