UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wa. — Zac Keener has seen it all from day 1 at Chambers Bay.
Keener has risen from golf shop assistant during the course’s opening in 2007 to current day general manager of the famous Pierce-County-owned/KemperSports-managed muni cut from a gravel pit on the shores of the Puget Sound. He’s experienced the highs – the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open – and the lows. He's grown tired of talking about the blowback from pros and fans about the condition of the greens during the controversial major won by Jordan Spieth.
With new greens in place, Chambers Bay is ready to write its next chapter by hosting 2021 United States Amateur Four-Ball Championship in May. A second chance at a U.S. Open, an idea that seemed so unlikely just a few years ago, could be inching closer to reality.
"I would be willing to bet with certainty that we will host another U.S. Open,” Keener said. “ ... The USGA really felt embraced by fans in the area. They enjoy the Pacific Northwest. It’s not just a matter of if but when.”
The new playing experience at Chambers Bay
My relationship with Chambers Bay dates back almost as long as Keener. I first played the demanding Robert Trent Jones Jr. design just prior to the 2010 U.S. Amateur won by Peter Uihlein. Considering my first three rounds all involved temporary greens, it was great to get the course at its best during a round last week, a month before its third USGA event. The turf was baked brown and firm like a crusty, ruffled muffin top.
I’ve grown to love Chambers Bay for its unparalleled scenery, wild shotmaking and a fantastic set of par 3s I’d put up against anywhere. On the flip side, I’ve come to fear a few holes (the par-4 7th and par-5 8th) and the hard walk that ultimately takes a toll on my feet and my scorecard. (For the record, my Fitbit counted 18,896 steps, roughly 8.5 miles, while on property.)
Trying to unlock the Rubik's cube that is Chambers Bay can be confounding. There's so much mounding, bunkering and elevation change that traditional golf doesn't often apply. A round is an exercise in patience. You have to take the good breaks with the bad.
On the fourth hole, I hit a scuffy hybrid that rode a steep bank and ended up 3 feet from the hole for birdie. The golf gods slapped me back on No. 12, the 281-yard uphill par 4 that yielded the most eagles in U.S. Open history. I hit a perfect drive, or so I thought, that kicked hard left into a bunker 20 yards short of the green. My ball nestled up against a grassy knoll within the bunker. Triple-bogey.
The greens were much improved from past visits when they were fescue. The effort to close the course for six months in 2018-19 to plant poa annua, the region’s dominant grass, has brought much-needed consistency. They are kept at slower speeds than your club at home, but that’s to keep them playable. I had forgotten how large the greens and slopes are.
Like everywhere else, the pandemic has affected day-to-day operations. The shuttle transporting golfers from the clifftop clubhouse to the bowels of the quarry has been grounded. Guests now park down below near the impressive golf academy, which has been growing exponentially since launching in 2016. There's also limited water on the course (there's a drinking fountain players pass twice).
My playing partners from Portland, Ore., weren’t impressed that they had to warm up on mats at the upper driving range after paying more than $200 as out-of-state guests. New dynamic pricing can push green fees as high as $275. But once on the course, Chambers Bay delivers excitement every time.
"Lots of creativity to be had out there,” Keener said. “Of all the hundreds of times I’ve played it, there’s always a shot I haven't played before. And I always take a photo. There’s always something that catches my eye and I think, ‘that’s a cool photo.’ I can’t think of another course like that.”
What's next at Chambers Bay?
The better greens and strong relationship with the USGA appear to be fueling the Keener's confidence for a U.S. Open sequel.
Keener wouldn’t commit to a timeline; it could be a decade or more. Regardless, it's still big news to the golf world, where many question whether Chambers Bay deserves a seat at the table with the likes of Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach and Shinnecock Hills. That trio is emerging as “anchor” sites for America’s national championship. Currently, the U.S. Open is booked through 2027.
There are still plenty of questions before we get there. Keener mentioned the possibilities of a U.S. Women’s Open or other USGA amateur events first.
Then there’s the seemingly never-ending quest to build a hotel at the site of the current clubhouse. The resort component is currently on hold, according to Kiro7.com. Because of the public-private nature of the project, all the details are available online: An 80-room boutique hotel and clubhouse space with meeting facilities, a spa, 200-seat Tom Douglas restaurant and an outdoor plaza with enhanced trails. Future plans include villas overlooking the golf course and some others closer to the water. Stay-and-play packages are available through several nearby hotels.
In the meantime, the everyday golfers will keep walking, and the hopes and dreams of a future U.S. Open will linger. Dustin Johnson's three-putt on the 72nd hole might not be the lasting major championship legacy of Chambers Bay after all.
“It’s been quite a journey, especially considering it’s still such a young facility,” Keener said.
Do you look forward to a second U.S. Open at Chambers Bay? Let us know your thoughts below.