Handicapping the U.S. Open

This week’s U.S. Open might turn out to be the most interesting and unique major championship of the 2015 season.

Chambers Bay, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is located on the Puget Sound in University Place, Washington. Golf fans will find the viewing spectacular and like nothing they are used to seeing in the U.S.

In preparation for this story I reached out to Michael Bamberger, my good friend and noted writer for Sports Illustrated, and asked him what he could tell me about Chambers Bay.

“Phil (Mickelson) told me he is going to Chambers Bay looking to win his second British Open. That says it all,” Bamberger said.

The terrain at Chambers Bay is rugged and wind-blown. Mickelson’s analogy is spot-on because this U.S. Open venue takes on the characteristics of many of the courses in the British Open rotation. Players will be required to bump and run but at the same time deal with obstacles, such as Hell’s Acre, which abuts an old quarry wall.

Several holes are extremely narrow, and an errant tee shot will find a waste bunker in the sand dunes or thick and gnarly fescue areas. The 17th hole is a long par-3, with the winds of the Puget Sound likely staring players in the face. To add to that element of quirkiness, freight trains will pass along the back edge of the green.

This will be the second major championship played at Chambers Bay. The 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship was conducted there, and during the competition 12 spectators suffered broken ankles. This is one of those major championship sites where you have to seriously ask, “Why would you attend this when you can sit in the comfort of your living room and watch others — players and spectators — battle the elements?”

From the time the USGA announced that it would be taking the U.S. Open to Chambers Bay, it has been a controversial site. If need be, this par-70 course can stretch to 7,795 yards. The front nine can measure 4,019 yards from the tips. Factor in the wind, firmness of the ground and the uneven terrain, and this could be more entertaining than anything golf fans have witnessed in years.

Golfers are somewhat sadistic by nature, and they love watching other golfers suffer. Back in April, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis threw gasoline on the fire when he said, “The idea of coming in and playing two practice rounds and having your caddie just walk it and using your yardage book, that person’s done, will not win the U.S. Open.”

Webb Simpson scoffed and said he would be playing for second place. Ian Poulter said that other players told him the course was “a complete farce.” Rory McIlroy asked about Davis’ handicap when questioning the exec’s predictions on player preparation. Most experts on course setup fear that windy, dry conditions could cause the USGA to lose control of the course, similar to what happened at Shinnecock Hills in ’04.

Tiger Woods evidently took heed to Davis’ warnings as he reportedly spent seven hours playing his first 18-hole practice round at Chambers Bay. Mickelson added, “The first time you play, it’s like St. Andrews. You don’t know where to go. The more you play it, the more you like it.”

The problem the players had in preparing for Chambers Bay was getting there. The PGA Tour schedule was tight and being played in the Southeast. A trek across the country was not easy. So despite Davis’ warnings, many will show up, do their two practice rounds and head to the tee Thursday.

I applaud the USGA for its selection of another unique U.S. Open venue. Critics said Merion was too short for a national championship in 2013. Davis proved otherwise. His brilliance in course setup demonstrated that the USGA had found a formula for transforming courses that were once considered obsolete due to a lack of length.

Without question the most prepared individual at Chambers Bay this week will be Davis. His neck is on the line for a couple of reasons. The obvious we just covered. The other will be the debut of Fox Sports and its coverage of the U.S. Open. Not only will it be Fox’s debut, but the challenges inherit with a site as rugged as Chambers Bay will test the network’s lack of production experience.

Finding much of the U.S. Open coverage will be a challenge for golf’s TV viewers. Fox Sports 1 will do much of the telecast this week, and it’s still not a “regular channel” in many households. As a service to the USGA, here is the schedule for the week.

  • Thursday, first round, noon to 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1; 8-11 p.m. Fox
  • Friday, second round, noon to 8 p.m. Fox Sports 1; 8-11 p.m. Fox
  • Saturday, third round 2 to 10 p.m. Fox
  • Sunday, final round, 2 to 10:30 p.m. Fox

“I’d love to see Phil complete the career Grand Slam. He’s been great for golf and deserves it, but I don’t see it. He’ll be 45, and Opens are hard to win. They’re 72 holes of sheer grinding, and I don’t think that is Phil’s specialty. Majors are a young man’s game,” concluded Bamberger, who favors McIlroy to win.

This U.S. Open is far too difficult to handicap. My only prediction is that it will be the most entertaining major of the 2015 golf season, and the USGA gets all of the credit for that.