A Brand New Bay (Course of the Year)
Chambers Bay Tacoma, Washington (Public)
These days the best new American golf courses arrive like designer blue jeans—deliberately ragged and faded in hue. Inspired by a British links aesthetic, Sand Hills emerged on the Nebraska plains in 1995, followed quickly by Whistling Straits, Arcadia Bluffs, then Bandon and Pacific Dunes. For all their tattered edges, these courses are decked out with the high greens fees and resort settings that remind us we’re shopping name brand. Last year the debut of the more affordable Erin Hills near Milwaukee signaled an embrace not just of the linksland look but of the ethic as well. In 2007 we’re brought even closer to the original Scottish ideal. Set within a county park complex and interlaced with public paths, municipally owned Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington, is T+L Golf’s 2007 Course of the Year.
It could have gone down in history as Ladenburg’s Folly, in honor of the bureaucrat who championed the project. After reading about the 2002 U.S. Open at muni Bethpage Black, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg visited a plot of county land that had long served as a rock quarry and was slated for redevelopment as a wastewater treatment facility. A golfer himself, Ladenburg decided that building a truly exceptional course on this site had the potential "to make Mount Rainier the second most popular tourist destination in Pierce County." The sandy soil left over from quarry operations would be ideal, but most compelling was the knockout view of Puget Sound, tracing graceful landforms against a backdrop of the majestic Olympic Mountains.
After a battle to win consent for the $20 million project, the county made another daring move, appointing architects not known for natural-looking course design—precisely what the surrounding landscape seemed to demand. The firm of Robert Trent Jones Jr. was selected over noted cofinalists on the strength of its enthusiasm and an ambitious links proposal. Design associate Jay Blasi explains: "We wanted people to come away saying, ’I thought only David McLay Kidd could do links golf. I thought only Coore-Crenshaw and Doak could do natural-looking and windswept. Maybe someone else can do this.’"
The architects inherited a 250-acre sandbox relatively free of environmental constraints. According to Trent Jones Jr. partner Bruce Charlton, the county had asked for twenty-seven holes, but "we thought it would be better to build eighteen really good ones." The crew moved 1.4 million cubic yards of soil, using about one-fourth of it to cap the course with a foot of premium sand.
Visitors to Chambers Bay (a forty-minute drive from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) are struck by the scale of the site. The course anchors a 930-acre park that will also include an amphitheater, twelve miles of trails and pedestrian access to two miles of beach. There are no homes or roads in view. Instead, swathes of yellow-green cloak an almost treeless, otherworldly dunescape. Add to this the whistle of freight trains running along the shore, air rimmed with the smell of the Pacific, Scotch broom flowering in May, and it’s as close to the Auld Sod as most locals will ever get.