Chambers Bay, outside Tacoma, Wash., is a Dream Come True
|Bruce and Jay like to color things.
They like to paint thick stripes of orange where bunkers should go, rope neon fencing around trees they want to save and stake the edges of a future fairway with fluorescent flags. They like the oily smell of diesel and the muscular sound of a backhoe grabbing a fistful of dirt, digging deep into the earth. Bruce and Jay like everything about how a golf course feels when it’s under construction. And they want you to feel it, too.
How a thick carpet of fescue grass crunches under your feet after a late frost. How the deep ruts formed by a tractor’s tires hold a sand dune in place until the roots of the native grasses can take over. How saplings clutch the side of the cliff, the one carved by decades of gravel mining but now transformed into something noteworthy.
Golf course architects like to build things. Carve their marks into the ground. Start with nothing and build something grand, something permanent.
Which is what Bruce Charlton, Jay Blasi and their partners at Robert Trent Jones II Golf Architects have done at Chambers Bay Golf Course outside Tacoma Wash., where they took an old gravel pit, an eyesore on the banks of Puget Sound, and turned it into a destination golf course that feels permanently rooted to a pastoral stretch of Tacoma shoreline. Eagles and hawks instead of cranes and ‘dozers.
Or like they’re doing now in Tulsa at Patriot Golf Course, a new project Jay is helping direct. You may have seen the Patriot’s founder in ads during the U.S. Open last month. The golf course’s revenues will support the Fallen Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists families of fallen U.S. war veterans through educational grants.
And like they’ve done at Stanford University, where the RTJ II team has just finished building a new 30-acre golf practice facility designed specifically for the golf team.
Big deal, you say?
Right now, Stanford can rightfully claim the best golf practice and teaching facility in America. The Patriot Golf Course will likely become a famous destination golf course. And Chambers Bay has already been chosen as the site of the 2015 U.S. Open – only the third municipal course to hold that distinction. Here’s the kicker: Chambers Bay, a design project for which Charlton and Blasi were lead architects, opened only a few months ago.
But this isn’t a story about Charlton and Blasi. It’s about a team, about the efforts and vision of the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design firm, where Charlton and Blasi are only two of its stars; that’s what makes their successes so compelling. Next to them stands a deeply talented cast of others, each of whom receives similar accolades for directing other golf projects. The show works because it’s an ensemble, each star snatching the spotlight at the appropriate time. If today is Blasi’s day, it’s only because the people in charge have positioned Blasi to win.
Two of those people are John Strawn, the company’s CEO, and Bruce Charlton, the chief design officer. Robert Trent Jones, Jr., still plays an active role in the company, but Strawn and Charlton make the business run.
Under their leadership, the architecture company isn’t so much lasering in on a new direction as it is tacking that way, riding a bluster of wind as it navigates from a one-man-show to an ensemble approach bolstered by young, dynamic talent and a focused project list.
Together with the seven other designers, including Blasi, Strawn and Charlton are positioning Robert Trent Jones II’s golf architecture firm for continued success in the future. That future has to consider that the company’s lynchpin, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., is now 70. For the company to thrive as competition for projects heats up, the firm has had to become more collaborative in all aspects of its business.
Challenging, innovative, enjoyable, environmentally responsible: These are the important words in the company’s vision, the ones that reflect a commitment for the game and passion that a golf course is a place of tranquility, friendship and sanctuary.
When I meet Charlton and Blasi for the first time, you’d swear they were a father and son team. Not because of their easy Midwest smiles, or Blasi’s youthful exuberance, or the flecks of grey in Charlton’s hair, but because they interact so effortlessly and comfortably around each other. Blasi’s a 30-year-old, Wonder Bread guy who always dreamed of being a golf course architect. He’s wearing khakis and a wrinkled wind shirt. Charlton has the toned legs of an avid marathon runner. He extends his hand gregariously, but he could also command attention by simply standing still; his radioactive plaid pants and Napa-cool cotton sweater would introduce themselves.
“It’s his favorite color,” someone says. You just know his teenage daughter despises it.
Charlton and Blasi are both the kind of guys you want to hang out with: solid, friendly, athletic and sportingly competitive. So is Strawn, the elder statesman of the group, who seems more comfortable in a blazer, shirt collar loosened, than shorts and a T-shirt. He’s a bit more careful with his words, but far from guarded. Strawn’s easy to like, quick with a compliment, and speaks with an architect’s precision that only comes after years in the trenches. When Strawn walks in a room, everybody notices.
I’ve come to Northern California to learn a bit more about golf course design from the RTJ II team, the architects who’ve designed more than 240 courses in 40 countries on six continents. In a couple of days, I’ll travel with Blasi to play Chambers Bay – to a large extent, his design – with him.
I’m with a small group of other media types, all of us sitting around a large patio table on the back deck at CordeValle Resort, near Palo Alto, Calif. The CordeValle course is one of the company’s designs, which they regard as sort of their home course, since RTJ II, as they call themselves, is headquartered in Palo Alto (hence their devotion to Stanford University, also in Palo Alto. RTJ II designed the Stanford practice facility for an unusual fee: unfettered access to the golf course and practice area for RTJ II staff when the team isn’t using it – especially helpful since Blasi, who led the project team, hopes to channel the ghosts of his college golf career and attempt to qualify for a U.S. Open.)
Over cocktails, CEO Strawn speaks candidly about the evolution of RTJ II, how the team has changed its outlook on golf course design, how they are becoming more selective in which projects they accept, how RTJ II (the person) now trusts RTJ II (the team of architects) to do much of the work, though he is still active in many phases of the projects.
In the past, Strawn says, the company would compete for nearly every job they were asked to consider. Now they ask themselves not whether they can successfully design a project, but instead, would the project be a good fit for the RTJ II portfolio and vision.
Blasi says he got into the design business thinking architects were given free reign to construct whatever course they felt was right for the land. If you can dream it, you should build it.
Nothing could be less realistic, both Blasi and Charlton agree. Blasi says he now realizes a golf course architect’s job is to help the landowner build the golf course of his or her dreams, rather than the other way around.
Charlton is president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, so he ought to know what he’s talking about.
“You can’t fully appreciate a course’s design without understanding the constraints placed upon the architect or the site,” he stresses. With good architecture, there’s a reason for every bunker, every curve, every routing. It may not be obvious, but there should be a purpose to everything. For example, an architect might have to route a course around an environmentally sensitive area, one the golfer doesn’t see, and that might make the flow feel awkward. As a golfer, it’s easy to think, “that’s dumb; they should have put the third hole over here.”
Or perhaps the landowner needs to sell home sites and wants to preserve a certain parcel for development. Sometimes, it’s a numbers game.
“We’re responding to the criteria given to us by our client,” Charlton says. “We’re often given predetermined corridors and told to fill in the spaces.”
Like all golf course architects, the RTJ II team shares a concern that the number of golfers is not growing. Charlton cites the expense to play the game and the chunk of time it takes to play golf as the two prime reasons. In response, golf architects are exploring ways to attract more golfers through innovative designs. Par-3 practice courses, three loops of six holes each that could be played in any combination, and nine-hole tracks on limited acreage are three ideas being tossed about with land developers.
Other than such nonstandard designs, Charlton separates current golf course design into two main camps.
“One has hazards that are giant Xs – there’s a lake, there’s a bunker – stay away from that.
“The other type requires you to navigate the hazard – risk/reward – a forced carry, for example. That one’s a lot more fun. You make a great golf course by giving the player flexibility in shots. Risk/reward, safe play versus risk so that every handicap player has a golf course within a golf course that is fun to play.”
For a low handicap player, Charlton continues, a designer can change distances and angles of attack, “but that requires 10-15 percent more land, and that’s something a lot of developers won’t expense.”
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Chambers Bay, a municipal golf course on the edge of Puget Sound in Tacoma, is an example of just such a project. To get a better understanding of what can result when a developer entrusts a team of architects with the freedom to do something unusual, to step outside a proven skill set and build a dream course – ultimately their dream course – I trek off to Tacoma.
It’s an unusually cold, windy day in Tacoma when I meet Blasi and Pierce County Executive John Ladenberg at Chambers Bay. The sky alternates between pastel blues and the color of steel wool. When I arrive at Chambers Bay, the thing that grabs me first is its enormous size. The site stretches for miles, and you can see nearly all of it from the entrance bluff. Chambers Bay is a multipurpose recreation facility that encompasses a golf course, acres of parkland and miles of hike-and-bike trails. The drive-up appeal is undeniable. It’s the kind of course that makes you want to grab your clubs and run to the first tee the minute you see it.
How did Chambers Bay come to be the best new course in America?
Blasi and Ladenberg say county officials decided to reclaim a wasteland: an open-pit gravel mine and a waste water treatment plant that seemed to be a poor fit for an attractive parcel of real estate on the shores of Puget Sound. So the county closed the mine, intent on rehabilitating the site into something its residents would value. That’s when Ladenberg hit upon the idea of building a golf course there.
“We didn’t just want a plain vanilla golf course. From the start, we wanted a U.S. Open-quality golf course,” Ladenberg says. It didn’t hurt that Ladenberg is also an avid golfer.
As Ladenberg tells it, he was walking along the beach one day, looked up at the gravel pit, and asked himself, “How can I get people from up there (on the road above the pit) to down here on the beach – a beautiful beach in the middle of an urban area? So I decided (the county) should close the mine and build a golf course with public access trails leading to a public beach.”
A golf course would accomplish three goals: draw residents to the area for recreation, attract media attention to Tacoma, and, finally, put to good use the gray water produced on the adjacent (but not visible) water treatment plant.
The county originally wanted 27 holes of parkland golf for the acreage, but Blasi and Charlton convinced the officials the sandy land would best support 18 holes of links-style golf. If you wanted to hire a golf course design firm to construct a true links course, the RTJ II firm wouldn’t typically cross your mind. As Blasi tells it, “the marine west coast climate, the seaside location and the sandy soils demanded a links course.” The county took a chance on RTJ II, and RTJ II delivered.
“We were asked to design a golf course unlike any other,” Blasi relates. “John (Ladenberg) kept telling us during the design process that the danger isn’t to aim high and fail, it’s to aim low and succeed.”
Blasi and his crew moved 1.4 million cubic yards of earth – twice what they would typically move on a parkland site – to re-imagine the gravel pit as wind-swept links land.
“This was a degraded site,” Blasi tells me as we trekked down the par-4 fifth fairway, descending nearly eight stories by the time we reached the first of two separate greens, one 150 yards beyond the other, which were elements incorporated to give the course playing flexibility.
“Preserving what was here made no sense. We recreated what we thought was once here.”
RTJ II and Ladenberg involved the United States Golf Association from the start, with hopes of landing the U.S. Open. Here’s the odd thing: With its lone tree, a Douglas fir behind a downhill par-3 that backs into the sea, Chambers Bay seems more like a British Open course than a U.S. Open venue. (The fir was recently vandalized, but the course’s Audubon certification dictates that it needs to be nursed back to life.)
Chambers Bay runs 7,585 yards from the tips, but the wind is unpredictable and formidable. (That same wind tangled the Tacoma Narrows bridge –the one you probably remember from the 1940s black-and-white film footage.)
When the wind off the Sound is up, and it usually is, the course plays firm and dry. It’s laid with fescue and a bit of bentgrass characteristic of a typical links course, which favors a ground attack to heavily contoured greens. Like the fairways, the greens are also covered with fescue – unusual for a USGA venue.
The routing continually changes direction. Fairways weave in and out of tall grasses and between sand dunes as large as foothills. Yet Blasi says he designed the course with enough waste bunkers and clearings that “it’s nearly impossible to lose a ball here,” a statement that a local golfer who overhears us agrees, then adds, “I haven’t lost a ball yet, but I might have worn one out.”
The fairways undulate wildly, as if their topsoil had been cut by sea spray and gnawed by wind. Gone, too, are typical RTJ II tee boxes, with their traditional boxy shape and level surfaces. As part of Charlton’s philosophy of challenging golfers of different skill levels by presenting “a course within a course,” the teeing surfaces are oddly spaced, thin ribbons with abundant contour. Place your tee based on the shot you want to create: sidehill to curve the shot left or right, uphill or downhill to ride or cheat the wind.
Charlton and Blasi built in tremendous flexibility by varying fairway widths and adding alternate greens and tee boxes. That should keep the course fresh and challenging.
Their efforts clearly work. Chambers Bay has been an early financial success. The golfers love it. The Audubon Society loves it. And the eagles, ducks and sea lions seem to love it, returning to the land and the sea they had long ago abandoned for quieter shores.
And Chambers Bay has become the first new course to be awarded a U.S. Open since Hazeltine National in 1970.
Blasi and I nearly finish our round before I hook a drive into a grassy catchment area. We search for a few minutes before I give up and drop a ball in the fairway.
As I set up to swing, Blasi emerges from the tall grasses and tosses me my lost ball. He’s covered in dust and grass.
“See, I told you you’d only need to bring a single ball.”
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