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Q&A With Robert Trent Jones, Jr. on Chambers Bay

While I get a few more interviews and course reviews finshed, here’s some great insighta o Chambers Bay from Robert Trent Jones, Jr., who by this time next week = may pull a come from nehind victory in the Rio primary:) (I.E. The Olympics election…err…selection…)

JF: Now those hummocks look like berms that Seth Raynor did at flat courses like the Country Club of Charleston or some of those older courses from the early 1900s.

RTJ: True. They’re the same thing as hummocks, and you can see how at Chambers Bay, we’ve re-crafted how the wind came off Puget Sound from the north and would have deposited the sand. Now the flagstick positions there are what we call in the industry medium-sized, which is actually comparatively small. Some of the greens are “large” size, but they are sloping and have softer but more sweeping transitions than the segmented “little decks” of say, Torrey Pines.

We moved one and a half million cubic yards of material to craft the dunes, hummocks, fairways and other playable areas, and then veneered the playable area as well, so that the entire surface is like a sandy green in condition, playing firm, where the ball runs out on the ground. It is NOT target golf.

The site was a mined-out quarry over 100 years old for sand and gravel for roads. We’re on 250 acres out of a total 600 acre in the mined-out area. As golf designers, we’d kill for sand, and here’s a quarry! So we continued mining it. We took the sand and screened it to get all the stones out – then re-crafted the site. We mined it to get some better views of Puget Sound and we designed a terracing effect, where some holes are above others.

JF: They did that at Bayonne and Tall Grass. It also helps save space.

RTJ: That’s right, terracing can also save space. And I really liked Bayonne, by the way. You see, the best courses are on sand, but that’s rare, like the coasts and the middle of Nebraska. It’s easy to work unspoiled, sandy land.

Now we have created something new at Chambers Bay called “ribbon tees.” Instead of separate tees, think of a wrapped Christmas present that’s tied by a long wide ribbon. The tees are long, with little folds and irregularities as they run along seamlessly, connected to the fairways. The tees are integrated against the dunescape, but they are at different lengths and angles and flow through different grades as you go from tips to the forwards and the various markers in between. They are a cross between a free-form tee and walking path.

Ron Whitten gave us a nice compliment when he said the tees are the first creatively new idea of the original 21st century. It’s “into” the land and “of” the land – eminently natural – and it doesn’t feel like a tee “box,” and you have a many options for the markers. They may, however, be canted, so watch out. Find the place within the markers where it’s flat or where you can use the grade to help shape your shot. We wanted to try that experiment. I bet in the ancient days the tee boxes were wherever they could find them, flat lies or not. But the idea is functional, beautiful and natural. On the same hole, a different golfer with a different shot shape can hit the shot called for, or if he can’t, he can find another place on the tee to shape his shot the way he’d prefer. There are no cart paths – thank the golf gods we didn’t have to put black strokes of paint on the Mona Lisa. Chambers Bay is wide – everything is lateral – with 200 feet of up-and-down elevation change but completely open, with only one tree.

JF: What strains of grass are there?

RTJ: Fescue grass from tee to green and in the fairways and a little bit of bent for body on the green. Since people fight over green speeds, what we did at Chambers was to use grass you can’t ramp up to 14. The best you can get it to is 10. Fescue and sand make for hard surface – no ball marks – there’s that thump when the ball hits. Also, it allows the architect to keep the rhythm and flow to be one complete hole, no segmentation from tee to fairway to green.

Now the ball runs out, so you have to anticipate that. I’m excited about the U. S. Open there because Chambers Bay will ask the best players in the world to think! I’m in their brain, they are on the defensive, and that will separate the truly skilled players and thinkers from the home run hitters and the big-hitting limber backs. Another way we do this is to put bump-and-run shots back in play. If the terrain makes the pros think, they may freeze up. When we worked the site during construction, Beethoven’s Ninth was coursing through my veins and I thank the leadership of Pierce County for being brave enough to bless these ideas.

This was not just a job, but a passion. Chambers Bay is a place where many true believers in golf and in golf course architecture came together and built a marvelous golf course, but also gave a gift to the Pacific Northwest. It was a true team effort, and that team includes Bruce Charlton, my partner and colleague of 30 years who was the main leader on all technical issues, and Jay Blasi, his young apprentice. But most importantly, in my opinion, it wasn’t the concepts, the paperwork, or the paper drawings, but the shaping which makes Chambers Bay feel like such an epic golf adventure, and that was due to my team of shapers that I’ve worked with off and on for 30 or more years, Ed Tanno and Doug Ingram. Ed is coming back to re-craft the changes suggested by the USGA so they will feel like they are perfectly seamless to the original construction. That’s the team, along with John Ladenberg, who took on decision making for himself – like no carts, therefore no cartpaths, resulting in what you now see, play, and enjoy. It was a team effort to execute. It was like a symphony – everyone had their instrument to play, they hit all the high notes with both precision and passion, and together it created great links music.

Then I told Ron Read of the U.S.G.A. that we had a site Michelangelo would kill for, and Ron got Mike Davis out there to see it. Davis, as you know, is the personification of dedication, especially to the game and to golf course architecture. His work at the U.S.G.A. and at the U.S. Open has been marvelous.

JF: Talk to us about how you routed the course and how you were inspired to create the holes at Chambers Bay.

RTJ: The request for proposals wanted 27 holes originally. Now this course is built on some of the greatest land in the world – sandy soil by a body of water. It was an industrial site, and so we left the artifacts like the ruins of the sorting bins as a tribute to what was there before – sort of modern American industrial archaeological monuments.

The course is a more expansive example of ideas I’ve been working on for years. We did Spanish Bay, which is a links and has many similar characteristics, but it’s also got smaller bunkers and it’s built on a smaller site. We also did a links course in Australia called The National in Cape Schanck – great name – in Mournington Peninsula near Melbourne. So we had experience doing links courses and working on linksland before. And when we are on linksland, we do linksy things. Go see the Algarve Palmyras course in Portugal among the sand dunes by the sea for another spin on this.

55 architects responded to the RFP, and the competition was narrowed down to five and then two. We responded to the RFP as it was defined; they wanted 27 holes with irrigation and a field for the spray form the sewage plant. (The whole property is owned by the Sewage Authority.)

But then we did our own plan in the middle of the night. We pulled all-nighters like college kids! Bruce Charlton led the conceptual design and we came up with the routing that exists today. So we told them that we could give the 27 holes and an orthodox muni, or we can give them a world class 18 holes on the site. So we submitted it. We even brought bag tags to meetings that said “Chambers Creek – 2030 U.S. Open” (the name they thought they’d use at first). At first we thought that maybe we overstepped our bounds or over-stated the case…

JF: I guess you didn’t!

RTJ: Right! Later, John Ladenberg said that we showed we were passionate. So at that point we started working.

Now for years I’ve been an honorary member at Pine Valley. I love it as an inland links – really a heathland course, but it’s not the main course that gave me the inspiration, but the little ten hole course that replicates the holes at Pine Valley. Fazio and the president of the club designed it. I’ve admired it since I was New Jersey junior champion as a kid. I thought that what was interesting about it was there are no tees – you just drop a ball and play it. One hole is a replica of the second shot at 13, and that’s what gave me the idea for ribbon tees – just drop a ball and play it. More importantly, the tees and fairways at Chambers Bay are identical, just like the fairways at Pine Valley! You can hit driver off the deck or anything else.

Next, both the bunkering the waste areas are inspired by Pine Valley and to lesser extent Shinnecock Hills and the first five holes at Spyglass Hill, a flowing, sandy unkept wasteland. There are only six (now seven) actual bunkers. The rest are sandy areas, huge amounts of wasteland, but the actual bunkers are like exclamation points – they are very precise and emphasize shot values.

JF: Like the one greenside on number 5?

RTJ: Yes, and also like number 17 on the left side of the green on number 15. Now left and right of the green on number six there are coffin bunkers. They are like King Tut’s sarcophagus; you don’t want to be in them. What’s buried there? King Tut and his golf clubs that he brought with him into the next life!

JF: What about all his servants and cats?


Bob: The caddies and cats are still here.

(More laughter)

So that’s one inspiration. The other is my long love affair with British Isles golf. There are only four true golf maritime climates in the world: the British Isles, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of South Africa. So I then consulted with my Irish turfgrass/agronomy friends on the proper fescues which would create firm and fast turf year round. At Chambers we have some tall fescues, some redtop, and Chewings fescue as well as others. The man I consulted with was Penn state grad Irishman John Clarke.

JF: Let’s talk about Chambers bay

RTJ: I like to open with Beethoven.

JF: What do you mean by that?

RTJ: Right away, you’re in for real music. You’ll be carried away on a strong, powerful, and moving journey complete with harmonies and percussion. You will ride the course you will not be coddled.

JF: Do you do that with all your courses?

RTJ: No, but I do that on the ones that are great properties that lend themselves to that, like the Prince course at Princeville.

The U.S.G.A. asked us to refine the entrance to the first green. I’m alert when I’m pushing the shot values, taking them to the edge, but then occasionally, you have to edit and refine like you and I do with poetry. The entrance to the first green was radical before the changes, and the green repelled the ball sharply left.

JF: I thought I saw a thumbprint in the left side of the green.

RTJ: Yes, there is a there a catcher’s mitt that would draw balls that were slightly mishit and send them almost all the way to the 18th tee. We want to give people options where to land the ball and yet have a seamless flow onto green. You still have to pick your spot where to land it on the approach, but you’re not going to get a random bounce any more.

JF: That was one of my favorite holes on the front, along with four and seven.

RTJ: Four is a wonderful par-5 that may play as a par-4 for the Open. I remember when David Fay went to see course for the first time, he turned the corner, and he sucked in his breath, because it was so dramatic. If you play directly towards green you have uneven lie in the fairway, but if you play wide left of fairway, the lie is gentle, but the angle of approach is more difficult and longer.

RTJ: Then you come back down the hill at five, which is a very strong hole. It’s an elevated tee bracketed by sandy wasteland on both sides, then you play to a horseshoe green with a with a single small pot bunker in the center which is lethal.

JF: That green reminded me of the Road Hole.

RTJ: It has similar elements, for sure.

Now seven is a Cape hole off the tee. You have to have choose your line carefully in order to place the tee shot just over the Cape bunker, but not too far left. You want to be like Geoff Oglivy, a thoughtful player with control off the tee. He would love this hole and this course. Than you play over hummocks, which I call the Alps.

JF: I do too, and it place to a green that has a bowl-ish features.

RTJ: Exactly. I also call the two mounds the “Olympic Mountains.” The green is elevated green 50 feet above you, and if you play too far left off the tee, you get semi-blind shot. Play just over the bunker and you get a better view and angle to the elevated green.

Then the front ends with a scenic par-3 with a dramatic drop.

JF: What about eight?

RTJ: Eight is a bunkerless par-5, and it’s not an easy hole, I’ve made eagle and I’ve made eight. You have to play the terrain. I didn’t need to decorate the hole with bunkering, but I just tried to follow the land. It’s like a hole at Royal Dornoch. The hole is more serene without bunkers.

Now 10 and 15 are the two beauty Holes; 10 is aesthetically wonderful, because you play among cathedral dunes for the entire hole. It looks like a birdie chance, but don’t lose your focus admiring the beauty of the hole.