UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Henrik Stenson compared the greens to broccoli, except broccoli is green and the greens are brown. Ian Poulter said Chambers Bay would turn the U.S. Open into “a complete farce,” but he conceded his comments were constructed from hearsay.
But Jim Furyk, who 12 years ago won a U.S. Open on a course very different from this year’s—old-fashioned Olympia Fields south of Chicago—described Chambers in less emotional terms.
Yes, it was built from an old gravel pit along Puget Sound, which certainly is unusual. Yes, it was planted with the fescue that grows on links courses in Britain. Yes, there are so many hills and mounds it could be confused with a Motocross track. But there still are 18 holes.
"At first look, the golf course definitely blows your mind,” said Furyk, who was seven over par after 54 holes. “You look at it, and it takes you out. You start trying to think of all the variables. Once you play it two or three times, you kind of bring everything back in.” Dan Jenkins commented on Stenson's assessment of the course:
The routing is one thing. Gary Player, the all-time great who now seeks publicity, called Chambers Bay “the worst course I’ve seen in my 63 years as a pro.” The setup is another. There are multiple tees on some holes, and the length from tee to green can vary as much as 150 yards.
“I think 18 as a par four doesn’t make much sense,” said Jordan Spieth, one of the tournament leaders, who had a double-bogey six there in Friday’s second round. “I didn’t know where to hit the tee shot, and I wasn’t going to hit a 3-iron into a 550-yard par four. So I thought it was a dumb hole.”
Dumb or not, there’s a solid group at the front after three rounds. Jason Day, the Australian who’s done everything but win a major; Spieth, the newly crowned Masters champion; Dustin Johnson, a contender in several majors; and Branden Grace of South Africa all sit tied for the lead at four under. Louis Oosthuizen, another South African who won the 2010 British Open, opened with a 77 and followed with a pair of 66s. One of those golfers will almost certainly be the new champion.
The winner is going to be someone who can handle the bad bounces and make the key putts—maybe someone like Day, who didn't get rattled despite a vertigo attack Friday that caused him to collapse. Oosthuizen, with his fine swing and attitude, seems to have found a bit of a secret formula, with two straight four-under rounds.
“It might look like an Open course, but it’s definitely not,” Oosthuizen said, comparing it to links venues such as St. Andrews or Royal Troon. “I think ball-striking here is keen to really pinpoint where you want to pitch it on the greens. But it’s still a challenge to make a lot of putts on these greens.”
Or perhaps Johnson, who threw away the 2010 U.S Open at Pebble Beach the final day with some wild shots, but now has the experience and wherewithal to handle the challenge presented by Chambers Bay. His length off of the tee and ability to hit short irons into tucked pins certainly gives him a big advantage.
Stenson shared the first-round lead of 65, five under par, with Johnson. Then he shot a four-over 74 and made his broccoli comment.
“It’s borderline laughable at some greens in the afternoon,” he said. “And some of the pin positions, when we’re almost better off plugged in a bunker than being on top of a ridge on the green.
“When you’re playing a course like this, it wears down your concentration. I don’t think the USGA have lost the course, but the way it is playing when it gets really dried out, because of the massive undulations, then some of the shots you face are virtually impossible.”
Rory McIlroy, No. 1 in the world rankings, disagreed with the type of vegetable the putting surfaces resemble.
“I don’t think they’re as green as broccoli,” he said. "I think they’re more like cauliflower. But everyone has to putt them. It’s all mental.”
Before play began, Phil Mickelson, who will remain winless in the U.S. Open, said he liked the course and the options presented but warned that well-struck shots might turn out badly while shots not hit as well might stop within birdie range. If that’s unfair, well, it’s unfair for everyone.
“The first time you play here, balls are bouncing everywhere off the hillside and ending 60, 80, 100 feet away from where you thought," Mickelson said. "But after playing a while, it feels like it’s not as difficult a course.”
Still, Chambers Bay has made a meal of nearly everyone in the field. Through 54 holes, there are only eight players under par. Half of those sit at just one under. And on Saturday, there were just six players in red numbers on the day, with only Oosthuizen's 66 and Day's 68 as better than one under.
And even when you play well, as Dustin Johnson (one over on the day) admitted on the Fox broadcast, it's difficult to score.
“I can remember telling some of the guys I played practice rounds with that you’ve got to stay patient out here,” Matt Kuchar said. “You think you hit good shots and walk away with three straight bogies.”
Patrick Reed played Chambers Bay in the 2010 U.S. Amateur. He was tied for first with Spieth after two rounds, then shot a six-over 76 on Saturday to tumble down. “I felt I hit good shots and had to play Mickey Mouse on the greens,” Reed said.
Mickey Mouse, like Tiger Woods, didn’t make the cut after two rounds—maybe if the greens were cheese instead of broccoli.
And despite all of the debate and controversy on the course itself, someone will walk away with a major title tomorrow. But unlike other majors, it might not be the guy who plays the best golf and hits the best shots. It might be the guy who gets the most favorable bounces and lucky rolls.
Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.