Chambers Bay Golf Course: What Can Be Done to Fix Spectator Problems?

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IJune 25, 2015

Grandstands and hospitality tents walled off spectators from the final hole.
Grandstands and hospitality tents walled off spectators from the final hole.Harry How/Getty Images

Chambers Bay, photographically, was very special. It was scenic. The look is charming and historic. The site has breathtaking water views. There are plenty of waving fescue grasses. But at the U.S. Open, as a spectator, you couldn't watch golf being played.   

While I'm not a golf course architect, I know a few of them. I have overheard their conversations as they walked around in the middle of course construction. That gives me at least some understanding of what they want to do when designing.

Most of my experience came from the time I worked for a golf course development company that built courses that went on to host a variety of special events, like the Ryder Cup, major championships, like the PGA Championship, and various PGA Tour, LGPA Tour and Champions Tour events.

That opportunity made me aware of the difference between the architect's perfect world, where only a few people use a golf course, and a golf course that needs to hold thousands of people for an event. They are completely different things and have become even more so over the last 30 years.

It is clear that Chambers Bay was designed without spectators or tournament infrastructure in mind. The problem with Chambers Bay is not the actual golf portion of the property comprising the middle of the golf holes.

What officials did wrong at Chambers Bay during construction was moving earth to the wrong places—along the edges of the golf course. It's the edges of the golf course where the people and hospitality need to be at large golf events.

Maybe Pierce County got blinded by the light of holding a U.S. Open. They didn't know how to create a course that could handle people as well as professional golfers. Clearly, they didn't have good advice on that aspect. A call to the PGA Tour while they were designing could probably have saved them a lot of heartache.

It's a classic case of they didn't know what they didn't know, and everybody on site suffered except the people in hospitality along the 18th hole.  

The criticisms of Chambers Bay came mainly because the edges of the golf course were not done correctly for today's tournament play.

Here's specifically what should have happened in some areas of the property, Cliff Notes version.  

Mounding and terrain kept spectators far away from the golf.
Mounding and terrain kept spectators far away from the golf.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

There should have been walking areas along one side of No. 18 and one side of Nos. 1 and 10. Same for every other hole. No exceptions. Eight, shmate. If you can get golfers up there, you can figure out a way for people to be there on one side of a hole.

Someone said, well you can't walk to the 12th at Augusta. Right, but you can see it. It's a wonderful vista. You can't see Augusta National's 11th tee shot either. But you can see the ball land and even get hit by it. So sometimes courses get a couple of hall passes for problem areas, but not for all of the holes or most of the holes.  

On No. 18, the array of bunkers on the right hand side, which mostly penalize the amateur golfers anyway, are there to look scary. The pros mostly hit over them, if there's space. They needed to be either lessened in width across the hole to allow people to walk up the right side, or the hole needed to have a buffer zone right of the bunkers where people could walk up with the golfers.

It would have been a grand spectator experience at the end, assuming the mounds between the gallery and the green didn't obscure the viewing. There might actually be land there that could have been used for walking, but that's not what the USGA chose to do with the space.

On No. 18, the hospitality tents and the grandstands acted like hard fences keeping people out. It was basically insulting. It was a glad-you-are-here, thanks-for-your-money, you-can't-see-the-actual-golf, too-bad, ha-ha kind of situation. It was a real shame.

If the hospitality tents had been moved back 12 to 15 yards, it could have provided a walkway for fans for that final hole. There was space to do that.

Since the golf course was manufactured anyway, it would have been easy during construction to make way for galleries. That entire 18th hole could have moved south 30 to 50 yards, leaving ample room between Nos. 1 and 18 for gallery and hospitality while still allowing a fine design.

Would it have changed the look of the hole? Yes.  

But part of the goal was supposed to have a golf course that could host important tournaments. When you want to hold tournaments today, you must design accordingly. They didn't.

On the first hole, there was a grass mound, hill or mini-mountain feature that separated it from the 18th. But there was room along the left side of the hole for people. If the mound was manufactured, it should have been manufactured much lower.  

If those elevated walls along the right side of the first hole were rock and not moveable, then the hole should have been backed up to allow people to walk along the left side of the hole and then around behind the green to the second hole.  

There was plenty of room on the property to back up No. 1 sufficiently to get the length needed. These are the kinds of decisions that have to be thought out for tournament play versus member play or outings.

The total property size of 250 acres is about 90 more than needed for a championship length course. So they had enough land. Old photos show what it was like before it was a golf course. They scraped the hillsides to mine the sand and gravel. You have to assume that sand/gravel base is still there and that the base is moveable because it was mined.

Similar problems existed on much of two, three, six, 11, 15,16 and 17, which I did walk. Well, I walked the path areas next to those holes not being able to actually see the holes during the process.

What needed to happen there was to reduce the size of the knolls so that people could see the golf. It would not have hurt the playability or design of the course proper to mash the mounds along some portions of the fairways.

I did not mountain-goat up to four, seven or 13 green; the main issue remained the ability to see the golfers.

Chance to view along the 16th and 17th holes was lost because of the drop down to the track level. A boardwalk would have allowed actual views of the golf course, not just the fescue. Mounds on the other side obscured play.
Chance to view along the 16th and 17th holes was lost because of the drop down to the track level. A boardwalk would have allowed actual views of the golf course, not just the fescue. Mounds on the other side obscured play.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

The mounding also obscured views from the walkway near the railroad. That would have been a spectacular place for an elevated boardwalk so that spectators could see the action on one side and the bay on the other.

As it was, the only view, unless you were a giraffe, was of tall grass and a green covering over the fence. You could not see a fairway or a green. You could see an elevated tee or two, way far away. And of course, you could see the grandstands, which always had lines waiting to get into them.

When walking out there on the cart paths, sand paths or gravel paths, it became clear that part of the reason for putting mounds next to the paths was to hide the paths themselves. At Chambers Bay, the paths are there for mowing equipment because carts aren't used at all. It's a walking course. They clearly do not want to disturb the golfer's view by having ugly paths showing.

Golf course architects use subtle changes of elevation to obscure a cart path or maintenance path when it crosses a fairway or slides up next to a green. But they don't need a six- or eight-foot mound. A foot will do the trick. If those mounds were lowered, in addition to solving the issue of difficult terrain, it would have allowed more places for people to walk and stand and watch golf.

You want a big mound? Put it behind where the people walk, not in front. What all this means is that giving people a place to walk around the course was not considered important enough to put into the design. It was sheer nonsense.

Topping it off, there's the business of the grandstands. We were continually told that the big grandstand at the 18th hole held 6,000 people. In total there were supposed to be 18,000 grandstand seats on the 250-acre course.

Think for a minute.

The Waste Management Open's 16th hole, a par three, holds 20,000. Even if Waste Management is wrong by 5,000 or even 10,000, you get the point. On one small hole, they can pack in more people than the entire U.S. Open has seats to hold. It was just bad gallery planning. It can't be defended.  

The grass on the greens was not a design decision. They already know they had an agronomy faux pas of the first order.

Hopefully, before Chambers Bay is awarded another event, and it should be, because the actual course is stunning, some thought will be given to the people who love golf enough to come out and walk three to 10 miles a day to see a tournament.

Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the PGA Tour, USGA, R&A or PGA of America.