USGA: It’s still a U.S. Open, honest!
By Stephanie Wei under US Open

One thing’s for sure: The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay will be a distinctive championship. It’s being held in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, not to mention at a course that is less than a decade old.

The USGA held their annual press conference on Wednesday morning and Executive Director and set-up chief Mike Davis echoed what many players have stated this week — the course lends itself to providing many options in how Davis sets it up, along with giving players various ways to play the shots. “Unique” and “flexible” were words that Davis repeatedly uttered to describe the championship and the course.

Since the course is so new and relatively untested (though the U.S. Amateur was held here in 2010), much is unknown to the players, many of whom have voiced their opinions. However, the USGA stands by the fact that while it’s a different kind of U.S. Open venue, it will remain true to the brand of a U.S. Open test.

“There are some that would say what are you doing in the United States conducting a British Open,” said Davis. “There are others that don’t know what to think, other than it’s very unique. But what I will say is what we try to do at the USGA with all of our championships is to truly bring them to some of the best golf courses in the United States, and this indeed does qualify for that. It’s very different. It’s wide. There’s more elevation change than any (U.S.) Open we’ve seen. It’s got the firm and fast thing.

“To play on fine fescue, whether it’s roughs, fairways or even greens, and being built on sand and in an area that really has very little humidity and we’re not going to get rain, this is going to be a very, very different U.S. Open test. But a good one. And ultimately while it’s going to be different, while it’s esthetically going to be different, architect really different, we are going to remain true to really what a U.S. Open is and what it’s been, which is a great comprehensive test of shot-making skills, course management skills, ability to handle your nerves, and I think truly anybody that’s walked this, there’s a bit of an endurance test, as well. So I’ll also say that to come to a brand-new golf course is neat.”

Many players, most prominently Tiger Woods, have emphasized that everything depends on how Davis sets up the course.

“While I can’t tell you the exact numbers yet, I would guess the next four days we will play somewhere between 7,300 yards and probably around 7,700 yards, maybe 77 and change if we — depending on wind conditions,” said Davis. “So to put that in perspective, if we play the back tees on every hole, you would be over 7,900 yards. It was never our intent to play that long.

“You’ve seen by just probably player comments, but also observations, that that yardage in some ways is deceiving because you’re getting a lot of run on fairways, which is terrific, which is one of the reasons we need to have a wider golf course here. But then you’ve got the elevation changes. So some holes that play uphill, the yardage is deceiving because it actually plays longer than it says on the card and vice versa. We’ve got some downhill shots here that you look at the scorecard saying why are they playing a 547 par-4, the answer is because it’s so downhill, you can subtract 35 yards off of it.”

The “flexibility” of the course was another main theme that was stressed, but again, the goal is to keep players on their toes, as they would at any U.S. Open.

“There’s lots of flexibility to setup this year, but I will say this, that I don’t think — I hope we don’t overdo it,” said Davis. “We want to make sure that it’s indeed a good test. But one of the nice things about moving teeing grounds around, about mixing and matching with certain hole locations, with certain wind conditions, is that it ultimately does test the players’ course management. And in some cases they’re out there practicing. They anticipate some things we’re going to do. There may be one or two things that they encounter that they didn’t anticipate and that is part of the test.

“We want to see how they think on their feet, how their caddie thinks on their feet. And I will also say that I’ve been hearing a lot about this golf course being so flexible. It is. And the architects wanted it that way. So we are trying to showcase some of the features that the architects wanted. But at the same time, I will also say that there’s a lot of flexibility on what the players can do. Oftentimes their shots, particularly some of the old traditional courses we go to, that you essentially have one way to play a shot.

“Here you may play a shot by bouncing a ball into the green. You may land it on the green, just shy and let it roll to a hole. Or you may use a sideboard or even hit it past the flag stick intentionally and use a backboard. There are a lot of options into greens. There are options even on the greens with some of the pronounced undulations they’ve got. And certainly there’s options off the teeing ground. It won’t surprise me that some holes you’ll see a group of three, and somebody hits a driver, somebody hits a 3-wood and somebody hits an iron. And I think that’s part of it. They’re thinking through course management and we would give that a big thumbs up.”

The greens at Chambers Bay are larger than they generally are at a U.S. Open, and since they’re mostly fescue grass, they’ll get smoother and faster as the day goes on — which isn’t the case with other grasses, like poa annua or bermuda.

“From an architectural standpoint, these are really the largest we play for a U.S. Open,” said Davis. “They’re big. Big square footage. But given how firm and fast these are — particularly the firmness, and also with some of the internal undulations they need to be big. And players need a chance to be able to work it off an undulation or be able to hit in the front and have it release to the back.

“The speeds this week will be somewhere between a 11 and a half and 12 on the Stimp meter. We think that’s the appropriate speed for these greens given the architecture and the firmness. That’s roughly what we had in 2010 for the U.S. Amateur and that speed seemed to work well. The greens are predominantly fine fescue. And this is a surface we have never played on in a U.S. Open for a putting green. Oftentimes it’s poa annua, it’s bentgrass, it’s occasionally Bermudagrass. But this is new for us.

“What’s interesting is there are some things that when I started at the USGA some 25 years ago, I was told early on greens never speed up. Whatever they are in the morning, they’re always going to get slower. We’ve been proven wrong here. These are actually speeding up a little bit as the day goes on. So we are planning for that. And in the morning probably don’t have the greens quite as fast as what they could handle. So you might see the greens speed up anywhere from four to as much as eight, nine inches on the Stimpmeter. It’s really interesting. We’ve seen this on fine fescue greens, whether it was in 2010 here or some of our championships played at Bandon Dunes down in the southern coast of Oregon, which is also fine fescue.

“One of the things that certainly has been — some of the players have commented, the aesthetics of these greens. They look splotchy. Ultimately what we’re after is how they play, how does the ball react when it hits it, how does it putt. Obviously we want them as smooth as they can. Some of the greens here, the majority of them, that do have some poa annua in it, and particularly it’s the annual type that tends to seed.

“For the last couple of weeks, we have done a marvelous job, the ground staff, the superintendents, as well as our own green section, to mitigate, so we don’t have as much bounciness. But again going back to these are the opposite of what they’ve always thought. In the morning after they’ve gotten a drink of water the previous night and even that morning, they tend to be — if there’s going to be any bounciness to them, it’s going to be in the morning. And as the afternoon goes on, they get smoother and smoother. And ironically with these things, when they get dry, and we had them last week nice and dry, they roll very smooth. So we’ve been balancing that smoothness knowing that we do have to water as part of the firmness to have the greens play properly in terms of shots being hit into them.”

Now, many players have said that distance will be an advantage, but Davis isn’t certain yet if that’ll be the case.

“I’m not sure I know,” he said. “There are certain holes that if you can carry the ball a certain distance, you absolutely get an advantage. But I would say this, if you think about the yardage being, let’s say, somewhere between 7,300 and 7,700, as firm as this is, it strikes me that even the shorter hitter is not taken out. They can absolutely win this championship if he executes properly.

“But I do think — each year we would say if you have the ability to hit the ball a long way and control your golf ball, you’re always going to have an advantage. And you should have an advantage. We don’t want to take that away. But to answer your question, I don’t ultimately know what to think. I do think it’s way more than just somebody who bombs it.

“This is a shot maker’s golf course, because you may bomb it and have two or three clubs in less. You may hit it over a hummock that other players can’t do. But ultimately it’s getting your ball in that four and a quarter inch hole. There’s a lot to it. It’s where you land, your trajectory, spin rate, do you want to curve it, do you want to hit it into a sideboard. There is a lot of thought that goes into it. I would not call it a bomber’s paradise.”

Once again, there’s that theme of “flexibility.” Speaking of which, the USGA Championship Committee will switch the par on nos. 1 and 18 between four and five, but every day, those two holes will be a par-9, so to speak.

“They’ll learn tomorrow morning” said Davis. “I know that there’s probably some saying, why did you change up the par 1 and 18, what gives? I would say that we went into the 2010 U.S. Amateur trying to determine whether we liked 1 better as a 4, 5 and 18 as a 4, 5. And the way the architects designed the holes, truly they did it with flexibility in mind. And we looked at it and said these holes are great played as both a 4 and a 5. They’re two completely different drive zones if both holes played 4 and 5. The greens can be very severe and almost add the element of risk and reward with hole locations. The bunkering is different.

“We went into that thinking this is going to be the right thing to do. There’s going to be a hundred yard difference playing between a 5 and 4 on those holes. We’ll have other holes where it will actually be more than a hundred yard difference, but we won’t change the par. Think of it this way, those two holes are really a par 9, but we’re going to give that trophy to the lowest 72-hole score. Whatever the par is in some ways is irrelevant. But in terms of the rest of the teeing grounds, many of these — the players this week have already been practicing from different teeing grounds. I think they know it. They may not have gotten everyone, but they know we’re going to move things around.”

While no one truly knows what to expect come Thursday — less than 24 hours away — Davis insists that the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay will remain true to a championship’s reputation as the toughest test in golf.

“This is a different golf course,” he said. “The word unique is used a lot. But it’s still going to test shot making skills. It’s still going to test recovery skills, short game skills. It’s going to take course management. You’re going to have to deal with the pressure of a U.S. Open. So all those things are very important, because we don’t want to lose the identity of what a U.S. Open test is.”