Traditionally the U.S Open is played over the great old American parkland courses with an occasional foray to Pebble Beach or Torrey Pines, two Californian courses high on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.
It is golf’s most brutal test, played along narrow fairways lined with thick rough and it once prompted the late Tony Lema to say ‘The Masters is fun. The US Open is fear.’
The arrangers of the courses see a winning score around par as the objective as they try and identify the best players in the game. The irony is the controllers of both The Masters and The Open Championship are not so obsessed with manipulating a winning score and do not use rough as a penal hazard or an essential part of the set up of the golf courses and history shows Augusta and the British links courses have done a consistently better job of identifying the games best players.
This week Chambers Bay, a new course just over fifty kilometers from Seattle hosts the US Open and from afar it looks to be a quite different test from the traditional. It will no doubt be a searching examination on a course where the tees can be stretched so far back it can stretch all the way to 8000 yards.
8000 yards is of course complete insanity and a result of the same people who run the Opens on either side of the Atlantic having utterly failed to regulate the modern golf ball.
Robert Trent-Jones II, the son of the man who famously rebuilt Oakland Hills for the 1951 Open, officially designed Chambers Bay. The winner of the ’51 Open Ben Hogan described the course as a ‘Monster’ and told Trent-Jones’ wife, ‘if you’re husband had to play his own courses for a living he’d be in another line of work.’
The man who lived on the site and made the course was an employee of Trent-Jones II, Jay Blasi. Blasi has a much different view of the game than his boss’ father and a quite different architectural philosophy of golf will be on display this week.
‘I feel that pro golf (and top amateur) golf has become way too much about execution and way too little about thought. Many courses are set up soft with high rough, lateral bunkers or water and multi-tied greens. That takes all thought out of the game. I appreciate wide courses with strategic angles of approach. I love courses where short grass is a hazard’ said Blasi.
He could, of course, also been describing The Old Course at St Andrews and one wonders why the game strayed so far from the original, brilliant concept of how the game is best played and enjoyed.
Blasi is of a new generation of architects who have rejected the ‘thirty-yard wide fairways lined with rough’ approach to making courses. It was an American philosophy, which came to favour after the Second War and was lead primarily by Old Man Jones and those who thought the game was primarily a test of execution and who thought ‘fairness’ and equity of punishment important.
Last years Open at Pinehurst was also a much different test from the norm. The fairways were wide, the usual diet of thick rough lining fairways was replaced by sand and wispy grasses and the short grass around the Donald Ross’ greens made for a fearsome hazard as it swept shots far away from the targets.
Chambers Bay will be different again. The fairways and greens are all sown with fescue and those Australians who have played Barnbougle in Tasmania will be familiar with fescue fairways and greens. It is the ideal grass to play golf off and given dry conditions of summer it is a fast running grass making what the ball does after it hits the ground just as important as what it does in the air.
Mike Davis is the man responsible for the placement of tees and flags and in the past he has innovated like no other man with his power. At Torrey Pines in 2008 he played the 14th hole around 460 yards on the opening two days and then a full two-hundred yards shorter over the next three, including the playoff.
This year he will go further. The opening hole can be played as a par four or a par five and it will be both during the championship. To match the pars the 18th can be played as a par five just over 600 yards or a par four around 525 yards.
Golf courses, tournament set-ups and golf design needs to be more inventive and this week at the US Open we will see examples all three on display and it can only be a good thing.