U.S. Open course is truer to na­ture

A lush look isn’t the way for Cham­bers Bay. And af­ter all, wa­ter’s an is­sue in golf.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL DWYRE

UNIVER­SITY PLACE, Wash. — Later this week, golf fans will tune into the U.S. Open here. They will see lots of brown. They will ad­just their TV sets, try­ing to get more green. It won’t help.

There is more at stake this week in western Washington than merely de­cid­ing a ma­jor golf cham­pion.

Cer­tainly, fans will re­mem­ber the U.S. Open at Cham­bers Bay by what hap­pens: as in, the year that Rory won by three, or that Tiger fi­nally made his come­back, or that Jor­dan won his sec­ond straight

ma­jor.

The gov­ern­ing United States Golf Assn. will re­mem­ber it that way too. But it also hopes to re­mem­ber it as a turn­ing point, one that be­gins to change the per­cep­tions and prac­tices of the game it­self.

The usual four ma­jors will be held this year. But three of those four will vary from the soft-and-green look. That’s no co­in­ci­dence.

The Mas­ters has al­ready brought us lush and plush. If Billy Payne, Au­gusta Na­tional’s chair­man, ever spot­ted a brown spot on a fair­way there, the groundskeeper would be on the first train out of town. The Mas­ters will al­ways be aza­leas and man­i­cured plant life and more green than a corn­field in Iowa. It’s the Mas­ters. It gets a pass.

But then come the next three.

First, the U.S. Open here, on a course brown and bumpy, sandy and nour­ished more from na­ture than a wa­ter hose.

In a month, the Bri­tish Open at St. An­drews. Again, it’s on a course slightly brown and bumpy, with huge greens that run true but don’t look it, and with nat­u­ral grass and gorse that have sur­vived for hun­dreds of years with­out ex­ces­sive help from high­paid groundskeep­ers and hourly sprin­kling.

In Au­gust, the PGA at Whistling Straits. It rises high above the western shores of Lake Michigan and is much more nat­u­ral than ba­bied. Like Cham­bers Bay and St. An­drews, it has a scruffy feel to it. Re­mem­ber, Wis­con­sin’s Whistling Straits was where Dustin John­son gave away a chance for a PGA ti­tle be- cause he couldn’t tell a sand trap from a rough spot in the fair­way and il­le­gally grounded his club.

Suf­fice to say, golf is feel­ing the pain all of us do, es­pe­cially in Cal­i­for­nia, when open­ing our wa­ter bill. The drought is a cur­rent Cal­i­for­nia thing. For the rest of the coun­try, the ex­ces­sive use of wa­ter on golf cour­ses, and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing eco­nomic fall­out, is an on­go­ing thing.

In a break­fast brief­ing for a small group of re­porters here Tues­day, top USGA of­fi­cials spelled out their strat­egy for the fu­ture. It is not only a strat­egy forced by eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tions, but also driven by a sin­cere de­sire, they say, to keep their game healthy.

The eco­nomic cri­sis is clear. In the last seven years, the U.S. has lost 800 golf cour­ses. One es­ti­mate put the an­nual rise in wa­ter costs for cour­ses at 11%. Those two things can­not be dis­con­nected.

This “back to the nat­u­ral” move­ment be­gan last year for the USGA, when it put on the U.S. Open, for both men and women, at a Pine­hurst (N.C.) No. 2 course that had been al­lowed to grow back to its nat­u­ral loose, free and scruffy-look­ing self.

“We are hop­ing to change play­ers’ per­cep­tions,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, and the man who will be ac­cused this week, mostly by play­ers shoot­ing 77, of be­ing At­tila the Hun in his course setup.

Davis ad­mit­ted that golf has dug it­self into its own hole in the U.S.

“For years, we have gone lush and plush,” he said. “Play­ers like that. They are used to it.”

And he wasn’t talk­ing just about tour play­ers.

“The per­cep­tion about Pine­hurst last year was dif­fer­ent in the U.S. than around the world,” Davis said. “The rest of the world loved it. In the U.S., it was about 50-50.”

So there is a big hill to climb here, and the key play­ers will not be the ones play­ing for mil­lions of dol­lars on week­ends.

“If the game is go­ing to grow,” Davis said, “you bet­ter have a game that is fun.”

It isn’t fun when the rounds are five and six hours. The USGA con­tin­ues to try to ad­dress that, with only vary­ing suc­cess. There are way too many recre­ational play­ers who couldn’t break 100 with mag­nets on the pins still de­mand­ing to play from the back tees.

And there are still too many golfers in the U.S. un­will­ing to play at a course more nat­u­ral than nur­tured. The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of U.S. golfers, ac­cord­ing to the USGA, long ago fell in love with high shots to soft greens. The USGA is will­ing to take at least some of the blame for that be­cause of its own course se­lec­tion.

The re­sult has been ob­vi­ous. Mon­key see on tele­vi­sion, mon­key do.

The USGA hopes that the hills, bumps, sand, scruff, lumpi­ness and gen­eral weird­ness of Cham­bers Bay can some­how en­dear it­self to the golf­ing pop­u­lace. It has no il­lu­sions that the pros will unan­i­mously love it. In fact, the off-there­cord whin­ing has al­ready be­gun, and the first round isn’t un­til Thurs­day.

This year’s Cham­bers Bay U.S. Open gives the USGA the cap­tive au­di­ence it needs to call at­ten­tion to some­thing im­por­tant.

Davis said that the group’s new broad­cast part­ner, Fox — via an­nounc­ers Joe Buck and Greg Nor­man — will ad­dress the is­sue to that cap­tive au­di­ence.

Will U.S. golfers pay at­ten­tion, or will they be too busy re­pair­ing inch-deep ball marks on wa­ter-soft­ened greens?

And if their rounds start to be over bumps and sand and scruffy stuff, will they con­sider their good walks spoiled?

An­drew Red­ing­ton Getty Im­ages

MARTIN KAYMER plays a prac­tice round amid the less than plush en­vi­rons of Cham­bers Bay.

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