When you get an invitation to play the U.S. Open golf course, you play the U.S. Open golf course. Even if you haven’t picked up a club in seven years.
So there I stood on an unseasonably sunny April day at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place. I really didn’t know what to expect as the gaggle of media members and VIPs gathered around the practice green to begin 18 holes at the site of this year’s U.S. Open. My only goal was to try and gain some level of insight into what to expect when the tourney gets under way.
I knew the golf I was about to play would be bad. (Okay, baaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.) Even back when I played the occasional round, it was mainly on ragged public Par 3 courses in Montana. Now I was standing where Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, and other PGA stars would soon compete for major championship supremacy. This course was going to eat me alive, but at least only my fellow duffers would witness the teed tragedy that was about to unfold. And then it hit me why men in green vests inscribed with “Chambers Bay” were hanging around our propped-up bags.
Oh no. They’ve assigned us caddies.
Instantly I was mortified. It’s one thing to be the guy who clearly doesn’t belong among a bunch of other hackers, but now people who truly lived and breathed good golf were going to have to deal with me. The guy playing with beat-up clubs that he borrowed from one of his pals. The guy who snuck up to the Jackson Park Golf Course the day before to hit 100 balls simply to make sure he still remembered the rudimentary motion of a golf swing. The guy who totally forgot to bring any tees. Even with zero expectations, I felt like a fraud.
But my anxiety drifted away as I met my caddy. Sean Lincicome looked every part the simple weekend golf warrior in his white polo, khaki shorts, bottom lip curling in the unmistakable way of someone with a proclivity for chewing tobacco (though not on the job), and conspicuous lack of the aforementioned caddy vest. He’s relatively green compared to some of the course caddies, and holds down a job selling golf equipment at Dick’s Sporting Goods when he’s not hauling someone’s bag around 18 holes. As we hopped in a shuttle and made the trek to our starting hole (No. 4), I made my lack of skill and basement-level expectations readily clear.
“Look. I’m terrible. I say that, but you’re probably underestimating how much I mean that. I haven’t played in years. I am going to shoot a very, very high score, and I do not really care. I apologize in advance for the golf you’re about to witness. Cool?”
After arriving at the fourth tee, we were soon joined by two more caddies: Nick Saper, possibly Chamber Bay’s most experienced caddy (who has since taken a job as caddy master at Gamble Sands in Brewster, Washington), and J. J. Eisenhart, who has logged years of pro-level caddy experience. But as we waited for a few minutes it became abundantly clear that the people assigned to play alongside me were no-shows.
It’s one thing to deal with the relative discomfort of being terrible and playing with a caddy for the first time ever, but suddenly the worst player on the course was now playing with three caddies.
While placing my first ball on a tee Lincicome provided, I addressed Saper and Eisenhart as I readied my first drive.
“Look. I’m terrible…”
So, funny thing: It turns out, playing with three caddies is a blast. Highly recommended. Four stars. Once assured that I had zero expectations for the round, the guys began kibitzing about various caddy tales, from stories of troublesome golfers at Chambers Bay to the benefits of playing golf in Thailand. There was a looseness about the air and a fraternal connection and rapport among the three caddies, and it helped distract me from overanalyzing each shot and let me drink in the course itself.
Set against the Puget Sound, Chambers Bay is stunning, but it differs in beauty from the traditional sites of golf major championships. It has neither the old Southern majesty of Augusta National or the paradise feel of Pebble Beach. There’s an unassuming quality to Chambers Bay: Slotted against the coast and tucked away from a few lanes of slow traffic by a row of trees, it’s not hard to drive right past it. The vegetation’s light pastel greens and sandy browns don’t even have a Pacific Northwest lushness to them. The sports media has made the point ad nauseam, but this is not traditional U.S. Open course. It’s a links course—on the water, dunes, no trees—that looks and plays like a British Open. But Chambers Bay sports a sort of lived-in beauty despite only being eight years old. There’s still some gritty marks of the site’s sand and gravel quarry past. To the south, arches from the quarry’s mining days loom over the grounds like ancient ruins, and when paired with the train tracks running along the western edge of the course, they give the surroundings an industrial flair instead of a traditional country club vibe. It maybe surpasses aesthetically, but Chambers Bay’s got character.
As my caddies and I strode along following the low-trajectory path of my ball as it rolled across the links onto the splotchy greens, a few things instantly jumped out to my novice eyes. This course is loooooooong. There are three par 4s that stretch over 534 yards (each one would be the longest par 4 in the tourney’s history). The course is also wide. The 13th hole sports a 105-yard fairway, in case players ever want a football field–size target. On a player-friendly note, being a links course Chambers Bay lacks the traditionally brutal “U.S. Open rough”; holes are flanked by a cut of thicker grass that doesn’t make golfers wish they had a weed whacker in their bag.
But if you miss the fairways and end up in the bunkers? Oh God, the bunkers. There are bunker stretches which can only be described as Tatooine-esque. These private deserts stretch on for eons. If a golfer veers right on 16, he better pack a canteen. I spent a good five strokes really frustratingly exploring all sorts of nooks and crannies of 16 traps while quite literally searching for greener pastures. While I somehow managed to avoid its treachery with a well struck drive, Eisenhart playfully said that it’s likely Jimmy Hoffa was buried in one of the bunkers on the seventh hole, but there’s no chance anyone will ever find him in their vast expanses. He joked that one of the hardest parts of being a Chambers Bay caddy is having to check in on families whose husbands hit the ball into the bunkers and never returned.
But perhaps the most striking feature is the course’s elevation change. For almost every hole, you’re walking substantially uphill or downhill, which can be exhausting. It certainly doesn’t bode well for often-injured golfers like Tiger Woods. Those miles take a toll. While I’m no physical specimen, my body ached for a solid three days following my round. Oh, did I mention that it took five and a half hours to play 18 holes? There’s long been a hackneyed belief that golfers aren’t “real” athletes. Well it’s going to take an athlete with some endurance to win this U.S. Open.
Sensing the relative ridiculousness of our situation, Saper bid our imbalanced foursome adieu after the sixth hole to either find another group in need of a caddy or head out to do other work.
As Lincicome, Eisenhart, and I stood on a hill that acts as a right-side boundary for hole eight, gazing at the grounds from one of the course’s highest points while waiting for the group in front of me to finish up on the green, I asked Eisenhart who he thinks has a shot to win this little tournament. Two groups jumped to the forefront: Brits and power hitters. The British golfers will feel the most at home with the links setup (again, the course is getting compared to the British Open for a reason), and the length of the course requires someone who can bomb the ball off the tee. Though it’s hardly going out on a limb, the player that perfectly fits both these categories is the world’s No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy. It also bodes well for perennial major contender and Englishman Justin Rose and a big hitter like Dustin Johnson, the PGA’s leading distance driver. Though when I posit the name Bubba Watson as a possible contender, Eisenhart lets out a hearty chortle. Nah. He thinks these greens will eat Bubba alive (though Watson also displayed some prowess for reading the Chambers Bay greens last week with an absurd back-to-the-hole putt that went viral).
After the eighth hole Eisenhart departed and I and joined a group that included ESPN writer Jim Caple for the back nine. My play never really improved as Lincicome and I wound down the round, but it didn’t matter. As the afternoon drifted along, the pure serenity of Chambers Bay washed over me and imbued a sense of calm. Despite the appearance of a few 11s on my scorecard, I wasn’t complaining.
On the other hand, many pros have been whining about the course in the leadup to the open. Some say it could be one of the toughest major courses ever, and that the winner will have a ridiculously high stroke total. The outcry became so overwhelming that Jack Nicklaus recently told all the young ’uns, for all intents and purposes, to shut up and play. And after playing a round, I’m with the Golden Bear on this one. Chambers Bay is tricky, but every hazard and potential pitfall is hidden in plain sight. I think a few of the top players should be able to crack the proverbial code and get comfortable under par, distancing themselves from the rest of the struggling field.
That’s not to say there aren’t times when Chambers Bay seems patently unfair. The green on the 12th hole immediately springs to mind. The 20,000-square-foot behemoth (the largest on the course) has multiple tiers, and players have to hit uphill to land it on the green. Missing by a few inches can lead to chaos. Expect at least a few players to experience the agony of missing just short and watching helplessly as the ball begins a seemingly never-ending roll dozens and dozens of yards back down the slope. And there are more than a few times when the putts required on the green require players to counterintuitively hit that ball well past the hole and into a slope to trickle back down to the cup from a more manageable line. (Note: great caddying required).
So how are players going to conquer this beast? My only real tip for the pros: “Aim left.” That was the familiar refrain from Lincicome as I stood in the tee box surveying every hole (14 excluded). The mini Saharas tend to hug the right sides of holes, so while sometimes it might be tempting to cut the distance and play it tight, players who conservatively make the safe play and let to ball roll along the vast fairways will find themselves pulling out substantially less hair (Jim Furyk excluded) and sporting lower scores by the weekend’s conclusion.
By the end of the five and a half hours, I’d hacked, rolled, and sliced my way to a better round than I thought. For most, shooting 133 on a par 72 would be abysmal, but it was fine in my “First Time Playing in Seven Years” context. Heck, I even managed to grind out a couple legitimate bogeys (Nos. 9 and 17). Obviously, Chambers Bay won the day, but, surprisingly, there wasn’t anything particularly fear-educing about the course. It really seemed manageable. Lincicome offered perfect advice hole after hole; I just merely lacked the skill to execute all of the shots he suggested. I even saw other caddies’ suggestions pay off big, like when Caple nailed the putt that every pro is dreaming of sinking on Sunday: a 35-foot beauty on the 18th hole. If a golfer can play things relatively safe this weekend and just capitalize on a few choice reads, there are red numbers to be found.
Which brings us to reigning Masters champion Jordan Spieth. He played Chambers Bay at the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship, and while he didn’t fare well then, his unnaturally patient style of play should help him avoid the devastating mistakes that can be made on this course. But even more importantly, he’s got a massive advantage on the bag in the form of his caddy, Michael Greller. The Gig Harbor resident, who’s been carrying the bag for Spieth for three years, was once a teacher in University Place who caddied part time in the summer to make a little extra scratch. As a result, he has far more experience at Chambers Bay than any of the other top pros’ caddies. It gives Spieth perhaps the biggest advantage of any golfer teeing up at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. That is, unless another pro finds a loophole that allows them to play with three caddies.
2015 U.S. Open
June 18–21, Chambers Bay Golf Course, Televised on Fox & Fox Sports 1