The Sporting Life

The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay: An Ambition Unlike Any Other

When a team of architects and county officials announced in 2004 they were building a golf course worthy of the U.S. Open, it sounded like a joke: Golf’s most prestigious event, in Tacoma? But now the only ones laughing are the people who made it happen.

By Matthew Halverson June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Seattle Met

ON JANUARY 5, 2005, THEY GATHERED IN THE seventh-floor executive conference room of Pierce County’s County-City Building. Some were the heavy hitters of their industry, names synonymous with excellence, and they’d traveled from as far away as Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area to be there. Others were local public works employees who’d only had to ride an elevator. None of them realized it, but what they’d come together to discuss would change Tacoma and the surrounding area forever. At the time all they knew was that they were there to talk about golf carts.

Groundbreaking for a $21 million, yet-to-be-named municipal golf course was still 10 months off, but its design was on hold, in part because the issue of whether carts would be allowed on the course had yet to be finalized. Among the men in the room was Jay Blasi, a junior designer of the golf course architecture firm Robert Trent Jones Jr., and for him the suspense was agonizing. As a child he doodled courses on the back of restaurant place mats and imagined fairways in cornfields on family road trips. Now, at age 26, he was finally living out his dream—assuming the carts decision went the way he hoped it would. The RTJ II team had been asked to aim high, to conceive of 18 holes so unique, so challenging that they could host the U.S. Open, the Super Bowl of professional golf. And—at least for now—they’d hit their mark.

Inspired by the windswept, seaside locales in the British Isles where the game began, theirs would be a treeless course of rolling—and in some cases, steep—hills, with greens tucked in amongst sand dunes. But if carts were allowed, the design would have to be flattened out in the name of safety and accessibility. Which would be a shame, because the canvas they had to work with—a little more than 250 acres of waterfront property in University Place—was perfectly suited to their vision. Blasi was anxious to get to work on a course that he and everyone else at RTJ II believed could stand among some of the game’s most revered, yet this business of carts had the potential to blow up the whole thing.

The decision was John Ladenburg’s to make. Ladenburg was 55 years old and in his second term as Pierce County executive, and he’d championed the project almost since taking office in 2001. In fact, he was the one who’d pushed RTJ II for a “U.S. Open course,” an exhortation that become something of a rallying cry throughout the process. But he prided himself on doing his research, so he’d invited Kemper Sports—the management firm that would oversee the property’s day-to-day operations—to Tacoma to present the business case for carts. And it was a good one: Nearly a third of the golfing public prefers to drive between holes, the Kemper rep told Ladenburg, so denying them that option could have serious financial repercussions. Ladenburg spent 14 years as the Pierce County prosecuting attorney, during which time he learned how to maintain a poker face when hit with shocking revelations. But when presented with the cart figures, even he couldn’t stifle a Whoa

Ladenburg was faced with the politician’s version of laying up in front of a water hazard or going for the green beyond it. After an hour of discussion and deliberation, he quieted the room and prepared to announce his decision. Blasi leaned forward ever so slightly, as if straining to see into the future. “We will call it Chambers Bay,” Ladenburg said, ending months of speculation about what the course would be named. “And,” he added, “we will walk it.”

Blasi struggled to contain his giddiness. He leaned over to another RTJ II designer nearly 30 years his senior and whispered, “Would it be inappropriate for me to climb over the table and hug him right now?” He didn’t, but more than nine years later he has plenty of reasons to wish he had.

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More than 165 million tons of aggregate were dug out of the Steilacoom site. “Basically the Seattle skyline was built from that mine,” says one man who worked there.

THE OFFICIAL STORY OF TACOMA’S pursuit of golf’s greatest tournament starts in 1992, when Pierce County bought a 600-acre gravel pit from the Lone Star Northwest mining company.

But the real story goes back even farther than that, 15,000 years in fact, to when the Pacific Northwest was trapped beneath nearly a mile of ice. The Vashon Glacier reached as far south as Olympia, and when it finally began to recede 11,000 years ago it dragged rock and gravel with it, reshaping the landscape as it went. The weaker material, tumbled and crushed under thousands of tons of ice, broke up and scattered in the earlier stages of the glacier’s retreat. By the time the glacial front reached Puget Sound, what survived the journey was by definition hard, clean aggregate. And a large chunk of that aggregate was deposited along the shore of south Puget Sound, in a pocket of land that would one day be named University Place.

Fast forward 9,100 years—give or take—to the late 1800s. After loggers stripped the area clean of timber, mining operations moved in and began unearthing gravel that would later become so prized for its strength and purity that it literally set the standard for aggregate used in cement. It even came to be known as Steilacoom gravel, named for the mine from which it came—in turn named after the native people who once populated the area. And for the better part of the twentieth century the waterfront south of Tacoma hummed as front-end loaders heaved bucket after bucket of clean gravel into dump trucks, rail cars, and barges. By the time Pierce County purchased the site, it had yielded more than 165 million tons of aggregate. “It was active for over a hundred years,” says Scott Nicholson, who worked there in the ’80s and early ’90s. “Basically the skyline of Seattle was built from that mine.”

When county executive John Ladenburg laid eyes on the Steilacoom site for the first time in late 2001 the rock was all but gone. And in its place was a massive pit bordered on the west by water and on the east by a 200-foot bluff. “If you flew over it, it looked like someone just took a big spoon and dug out a huge chunk,” Ladenburg says now.

He’d come to University Place at the city manager’s request to look at a barbed wire fence that separated Grandview Drive—a residential street that bordered the mine—from the bluff. “It looks like a prison,” the city manager said over the phone, and once Ladenburg saw it he agreed. But while the fence was meant to protect neighborhood residents from falling in, Ladenburg decided it was actually preventing them from getting in and enjoying a piece of potentially idyllic waterfront property.

In the decade since acquiring the land Pierce County had been leasing it back to Lone Star, but for far less than Ladenburg thought it was worth. He terminated the lease and set in motion his plan to develop the property. Within months, he’d moved the fence farther down the hill and out of view and built a three-mile walking trail on the other side. And when residents had a chance to get down there and see what they’d been missing for decades, the emails started landing in Ladenburg’s inbox. “That’s a beautiful beach,” they’d write. “What are you going to do with it?”

When Ladenburg asked his public works director the same question, he learned that in 1997 the county had drafted a 50-year site plan for what was then known as Chambers Creek Properties that included vague plans for a golf course. The county executive had another timetable in mind. Ladenburg speaks in a soft voice that belies his blocky stature. But there’s an edge to his speech too, the vocal equivalent of a smirk that suggests he knows something you don’t. “We’re not going to have a 50-year plan,” he told the public works director. “I’m only going to be executive for eight years, so we’re going to have an eight-year plan.”

WESTERN WASHINGTON HAD NEVER SEEN a deluge like the one that drenched the region on October 20, 2003. North of Seattle the Skagit River crested 12 feet above flood level. To the east, the Snoqualmie and Tolt Rivers were at risk of escaping their banks. At Sea-Tac the gauge filled to just above the five-inch mark, breaking the record for rainfall in a single day by more than one and a half inches. It wasn’t biblical, but it wasn’t far off. And it was perfect weather for visiting John Ladenburg’s gravel pit.

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RTJ II had mountains of sand—gold to golf course architects—with which to work.

A month earlier the Pierce County purchasing department had issued a request for qualifications from golf course architecture firms interested in taking on the project. And those that wanted more information before submitting their paperwork were invited to tour in late October. More than 50 designers from across the country submitted paperwork. Among them were the retired titan of the game Jack Nicklaus, Tacoma’s own John Harbottle, and Robert “Bobby” Trent Jones Jr.

Jones’s interest in the project was largely a function of geography. His firm is based in Palo Alto, California. His CEO at the time, John Strawn, is a Portland native. And Joe Boyle, then a junior member of the firm responsible for scouting projects on which to bid, is a University of Washington graduate. It seemed silly not to look into it, so before going to the trouble of responding to the county’s RFQ, Strawn and Boyle flew to Tacoma to see the site firsthand.

“It was raining so hard that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face,” Strawn remembers. And yet despite the downpour, there wasn’t a single puddle in the pit, no mud in which to sink and lose a shoe. Because it was nothing but sand, from one end of the property to the other.

Mining outfits like Lone Star Northwest that sell aggregate for concrete closely monitor something called pit balance: Gravel of several sizes gets packaged with sand to create a mix. But gravel is more valuable than sand, so once a site is stripped clean of gravel, the balance is lost and continuing to extract sand just doesn’t pencil out. The pit balance at the Steilacoom site tipped far in favor of sand, so when the digging was done, mountains of the stuff—in some cases 70 or 80 feet tall—remained. And if there’s one thing that golf course designers love, it’s sand. Not only can it be sculpted into virtually any shape imaginable, but it also renders rain a nonfactor. “Real estate guys like to say that the three most important things are location, location, location, right?” Strawn says. “Well, for a successful golf course project the three most important things are drainage, drainage, drainage.”

Pierce County had sent a DVD loaded with background info, photos, and flyover video of Chambers Creek Properties to interested architects, so Strawn already had the broad strokes. But laying eyes on it in person—even through rain-soaked glasses—convinced him there was gold in those hills. “There was no doubt about the potential that that site had,” he says. “There wasn’t a moment’s doubt in anyone’s mind that it could be world class.”

He and Boyle returned to Palo Alto energized and began drafting a 22-page document that outlined RTJ II’s bona fides. Later that fall the firm was named one of five finalists for the project, along with the hometown boy Harbottle and future three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who’d recently dipped his toe into the design game. 

In spring 2004 the Jones staff—among them Strawn, company president and chief designer Bruce Charlton, and design associate Jay Blasi—laid out its plan for the site during a tense presentation at Pierce County’s Environmental Services Building. Their audience consisted of a handful of county employees, a representative of the United States Golf Association’s western region, and the head of the Washington State Golf Association. Ladenburg sat stone faced as he presided over the meeting; those in the room have no recollection of the county exec asking a single question. Or speaking, for that matter. “We all thought, ‘Wow, I wonder what he’s thinking?’” Strawn says. “Nobody got a sense from him of how he might have been responding to the presentation.”

As originally conceived by the county in 1997, the course would be nothing special, just an unassuming, run-of-the-mill recreational diversion. But when Ladenburg got hold of the Chambers Creek Properties master site plan, he saw a revenue generator. “We didn’t really need just another golf course,” he says. The county had its own municipal courses—Lake Spanaway and Fort Steilacoom—not to mention several private courses. “So we started thinking, ‘How can we build a higher-end course that would be a tourist attraction?” Ladenburg certainly didn’t have the answer; slow-pitch softball was his game and the golf world and its nuances were foreign to him. “He’d come out to the course in cowboy boots and a satin Mariners jacket,” says one person involved in the project. But Ladenburg also knew what he didn’t know, and he wasn’t afraid to ask for input from experts.

He had one other goal, laid out plainly in the RFQ: “The golf course will be a…high-end daily fee course capable of attracting PGA, LPGA, and USGA national tournaments, as well as top regional professional and amateur events.” More specifically he wanted a U.S. Open. 

Among golf’s four major tournaments, three of which are played on U.S. soil, the Open is without question the most prestigious, due to both its difficulty and the demanding criteria the USGA applies. Held 114 times since 1895, it’s been played at just 50 sites. Only two municipal courses have ever had the honor—San Diego’s Torrey Pines and Bethpage Black on Long Island—and both had to wait until the twenty-first century to do so. Even more remarkable: In 120 years, it’s never once been played in the Pacific Northwest. Which is to say that although Ladenburg was serious in his hopes of building a course that could host the U.S. Open in Tacoma, he was either naive, crazy, or a little bit of both for thinking he could actually pull it off.

The Jones plan—which began with a PowerPoint slide that said, “Amazing things can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit”—hit all the right notes, promising a course that would be unmatched in its beauty and scope. Even if he didn’t show it during the presentation, Ladenburg was impressed by their vision. And he bought in to the fact that RTJ II had bought in. “If you’re offering someone millions of dollars to build a U.S. Open course, they’re going to shine you on a little bit,” he says. He read something in their eyes, though—maybe a belief that the project would be as beneficial to them as it would be to Ladenburg—that convinced him they were more than just talk. “They weren’t bullshitting me.”

A couple weeks later Strawn got a call from the public works employee who’d been shepherding the project on Ladenburg’s behalf. “I have good news and bad news—which do you want first?” he deadpanned. “Give me the bad news,” Strawn replied. “Well, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in Tacoma.” Beat. “So, of course, the good news is that you’ve been selected to design the course.” Construction was scheduled to begin in fall 2005. 

THERE WAS NEVER REALLY A DOUBT about what Jay Blasi would grow up to be. When he was born, his dad brought a set of toy golf clubs to the hospital. As an infant he crawled on the putting green his dad had built in the family’s backyard. As a teenager he read Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s book, Golf By Design. And in 2001, at age 23, he went to work for Jones after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in landscape architecture. “Golf architecture is all I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” he says.

Chambers Creek was the first project Blasi would work start to finish, and it represented everything he loved about the game of golf. In order to take full advantage of the sandy waterfront site, RTJ II was proposing a Scottish links-style course that would be unlike anything else in Washington. Whereas the typical Northwest course ripples with lush, soft fairways carved out of huge stands of hemlock and fir, links -courses—so named because they linked farmland to the beaches in the British Isles—resemble a barren, almost post-apocalyptic battlefield. Craterous bunkers scar the ground, which is hard, only vaguely green, and unforgiving. Water hazards are rare, but the long, matted rough will swallow a poorly struck ball just the same. And then there are the obstacles you can’t see. Usually situated near the sea or ocean, links courses are buffeted by strong winds and lack trees that could fend them off.

The defining characteristic of these courses, though, is the turf. Fescue is a cool-weather grass that thrives with limited amounts of sun, water, and fertilizer, and it enhances the so-called firm and fast characteristics of links golf. Golf in the U.S. is played in the air, with long, high drives off the tee and arcing wedge shots onto the green. On the other hand, European, links-style golf is played on the ground, with carefully planned iron shots and putts that originate well off of the green. “When you have firm and fast conditions,” Blasi says, “a golfer needs to consider what’s going to happen when the ball lands, because that little two-foot hummock might kick their ball 50 yards left, right, front, or back.” 

Incorporating those firm and fast conditions hinged entirely on Ladenburg’s decision to keep carts off the course. Because while fescue is hardy enough to survive where other grasses won’t, it’s sensitive to high traffic and would be worn bare by tires. Had Ladenburg allowed golf carts, RTJ II wouldn’t have been able to use fescue. If they couldn’t use fescue, they couldn’t build a true links course. And if they couldn’t build a links course? Ladenburg would likely have just another muni for hackers, and he could forget the Open. 

Throughout the process the county exec stressed to his staff that all decisions should be made with the acquisition of the tournament in mind. “Does this get us closer to or further from the U.S. Open?” he’d say. But this was a public project—paid for with publicly backed bonds—that had ballooned in price from $13 million at its inception to $21 million. And a vocal minority of the Pierce County Council opposed it, favoring a plan to lease the land to a private developer that would assume most of the financial risk. By gambling with the public’s money, Ladenburg got one step closer to his goal. But, as he’ll admit now, he burned up all of his political capital to do it: In November 2008, he’d challenge Rob McKenna for the Washington attorney general seat. And even with then-governor Christine Gregoire’s endorsement, Ladenburg would lose badly, claiming just 42 percent of the vote in his home county.

With the biggest decision made, RTJ II and Blasi could get to work. While scouting the site in early 2005, he’d race around, kicking up sand behind him as he went, looking for natural land formations around and behind which to build holes. “Imagine a five-year-old in a sand pit,” he says. “I was literally running up to the top of these dunes, thinking, What can you see in this corner? And if you go over there, what do you see?

Some of what he saw was obvious: At the north end of the pit was an old mining road that looked like—and later became—a fairway. And some of what he saw revealed itself over time. Originally the sixth hole was designed to be a short one, but when construction crews began removing second- and third-growth trees from the middle of the site, they uncovered a pocket in a dune that opened up all new opportunities. “We ended up changing the sixth hole,” Blasi says, “morphing it from a par three out in the open to a dogleg-right par four that played into the slot in the dune.” (Ironically, what would become the most recognizable part of the course—a single fir tree left standing behind the 15th hole—had nothing to do with sand.)

While Blasi worked the site, flying north to University Place for a couple days every week or so until the course was complete, Robert Trent Jones Jr. himself worked the phones. You don’t just say you’re going to build a course so spectacular that it can host golf’s showcase event and then hope the right people find you—especially if said course is in the only corner of the country that’s never sniffed a major tournament. It was Jones’s connections within the golf world that won him the job, and he put them to work early on, building buzz for what he believed would be the firm’s crowning achievement. His first call was to Ron Read.

He’s retired now, but in 2005 Read was the director of the USGA’s western region. It wasn’t him who Jones and Ladenburg would ultimately have to impress if they hoped to land an Open, but he did have the ear of the folks at the USGA’s head office in New Jersey. Within a day of Jones’s call, Read was tromping through the sand with Ladenburg. “I’ve been looking for this,” he told Jones later. “I’ve been looking for a site for the U.S. Open for 27 years.”

The only other course in the Northwest that could match the setting, sandy base, and true links design that the RTJ II firm had planned for Chambers Bay was Bandon Dunes. Situated on the Oregon coast, less than a hundred miles north of the California border, Bandon has everything the USGA looks for in a U.S. Open course: painterly views of the water, wide expanses for accommodating the large crowds and corporate tents that accompany the event, and—most important—a challenging course. Within months of its opening in 2000, golf course magazines lauded it as a must-play, the one authentic links course in the United States. The only knock against Bandon: It’s five miles from nowhere, and the USGA prefers sites near major cities with lots of hotel rooms.

Chambers had a chance to be everything Bandon was—along with the one thing it couldn’t be—so Read called Mike Davis, then the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions (and today its executive director): Get out here. This place is special. Davis shared Read’s assessment and kept in touch with Jones and Ladenburg, weighing in on design decisions when asked. (Read, now retired, is none too shy about accepting credit for connecting the two camps: “I don’t think Bobby [Jones] would have picked up the phone and said to Mike Davis, ‘I’m building a U.S. Open course. Come see it.’”) And with the hook set firmly, the county exec continued to reel Davis in, slowly but surely. “The more they see us changing things based on their suggestions, the more invested they are,” Ladenburg says. “The more it becomes their golf course.”

All that was left was the execution.

THERE'S A STORY THAT EVERYONE INVOLVED in the Chambers Bay project loves to tell. At the end of RTJ II’s March 2004 presentation that won over Ladenburg, Blasi walked around the room handing out a token of the team’s commitment to the job. The previous summer he’d attended the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. Over the weekend he ate lunch next to a man who made commemorative golf-bag tags for a living and stuck the man’s business card in his pocket. Before the meeting, Blasi placed an order for 50 tags that read 2030 U.S. Open—Chambers Creek. “I kidded them for years about how badly they predicted it,” Ladenburg says.

Within six months of its June 2007 opening, Chambers Bay was every golf writer’s new favorite course; three magazines named it one of the best new courses of the year, and Travel and Leisure Golf named it the best new course. And within eight months, it landed the 2015 U.S. Open, to be played June 18–21. Tickets go on sale this June 9.

It’s hard to quantify just how unlikely that feat was. Remember, the U.S. Open has never come to the Pacific Northwest, and just two munis have ever hosted it. And then there’s this: Not only was Chambers the youngest course ever to be awarded the Open, it was the first built since 1967 to do so. RTJ II’s John Strawn says the design team was being “cheeky” when it had those 2030 bag tags made, because a multiple-decade wait was more likely. Blasi goes so far as to joke that Jones should have written it into the contract with Pierce County that for every year before 2030 that Chambers booked the Open, the firm would get a million dollars.

Ron Read says Chambers Bay is Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s legacy. And it may be. But for Blasi it represents something more important. First, he met his wife, Amy, while working on it. But it’s also become his calling card. 

Shortly after the course opened, the golf industry took a nose dive, and in 2012 Blasi lost his job with RTJ II. The architect who drew golf courses on the back of restaurant place mats is careful when discussing who was responsible for how much of the Chambers design, only allowing that he was fortunate to be a part of the team. But the logo for his new firm, Jay Blasi Design, may offer a clue to his real thoughts on the matter: a silhouette of the 15th hole’s lone fir—the most iconic part of the course.

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