Beauty by the Bay Chambers Bay course will bring Scottish links-style to Puget Sound

UNIVERSITY PLACE - The debut of Scottish links-style golf in Washington state is less than seven weeks away with the June 23 opening of the much anticipated Chambers Bay Golf Course hard against the shores of Puget Sound in University Place.

I had the privilege of playing one of the first rounds of golf last week on a golf course sculpted out of an abandoned sand and gravel mine and designed by renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones II.

It was a bit like taking a bite out of a not yet ripe apple. The fescue grass greens, which range in size from the six-tiered, 60-yard deep No. 12 to the postage stamp-sized No. 16, were slow - not yet mowed and rolled for prime time play.

And the expansive, sloping fescue grass fairways, which reward well-placed tee shots, but are often framed by grassy dunes and vast, sandy wastelands that gobble up errant shots, aren't quite ready for divot-taking.

That means we played all our tee and approach shots off small mats carried by our caddies.

But these two golf irritants were not enough to spoil an otherwise unique golf experience in South Sound.

The golf course is designed for walking only and what a walk it is. On a clear or partly cloudy day - and we had one - the views of Puget Sound are panoramic. Ketron, Anderson, McNeil and Fox islands are in full view, as are the distant Olympic Mountains and the Black Hills.

Not a single tree adorns the 250-acre layout, although a solitary fir tree behind the 15th green is a prominent feature and favorite perching spot for bald eagles. One flew into the tree as we teed off there.

This is not a flat piece of property. The elevation gains and losses are serious, adding to the variety of vistas and physical challenge of playing the course, especially for the baby boomers the course is designed, and priced, to attract.

Pierce County, which owns the golf course and another 680 acres adjoining it, has invested some $20 million in the golf course in hopes of generating revenues to pay for recreational and beach access projects, including renovation of an old industrial pier for public use, that could rival Tacoma's Point Defiance Park.

Pierce County officials, led by county executive John Ladenburg, are betting they can turn Chambers Bay into a destination golf course that attracts golfers from near and far and one day finds itself in the mix to host a major championship.

From the back tees, the course stretches to a gargantuan 7,585 yards, which should be enough length to contain the game of today's PGA tour professionals.

Greens fees

But first things first. The course needs players, and plenty of them, to operate in the black. Residents outside of Pierce County will pay $115 to $150 for a round, depending on the time of year and day of the week. A caddy is optional at a cost of $35.

Only time will tell if the golf market will bear these prices. Part of the answer lies in the ability of Pierce County to successfully market Chambers Bay as a golf experience akin to Bandon Dunes, the wildly popular Scottish links-style golf complex on the southern Oregon coast. The two golf complexes do share the same golf course management firm - KemperSports of Northbrook, Ill.

I've played the three courses at Bandon Dunes and now I've played Chambers Bay. While clearly not as rugged and magical as Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay is still a special place and special golf course that will only grow better with the maturity time affords.

A few random observations from my afternoon on the golf course with several other members of the South Sound media, Ladenburg, golf course superintendent Joe Wisocki and Pierce County media relations and communications manager Dick Ferguson:

n The golf course wastes no time showing off its connection to Puget Sound, heading straight out to the water with a difficult par-4 No. 1 that measures 436 yards from the forward, white tees.

n The 406-yard par-4 No. 4 is dubbed "Hazards Ascent," after the fairway that slopes to the right into a vast waste area of sand and scruffy grass. I found the waste area with my tee shot and needed three shots to get out.

n Hit your tee ball or second shot right on the 488-yard, par-5 No. 8 and you plunge into another deep waste area. Ferguson, who I first met 30 years ago when he was an assistant city editor at The News Tribune in Tacoma and I was a cub reporter at The Pierce County Herald in Puyallup, hit a remarkable third shot to the green from that notorious wasteland and sank the putt for a birdie 4.

n The par-3 ninth brings new meaning to the phrase "elevated tee." To reach the green, you must shoot over a cavernous pit that was once home to the more than one million cubic yards of sand used to shape the fairways, bunkers and dune-like formations that define the golf course.

n The par-four Nos. 10 and 11 reminded me the most of Bandon Dunes with fairways and greens protected by giant dunes.

n When the wind is blowing - it wasn't when we played - the par-4 16th and par-3 17th, which run parallel to Puget Sound along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, will play tough as nails.

n A demanding par-5 finishing hole is bordered by the remains of behemoth cement bins once used to sort gravel. They come into place off the championship tee.

For the record, I made only five pars all day and didn't break 90 from the everyday, white tees, which measure 6,011 yards. I look forward to a playing Chambers Bay again, almost as much as I look forward to a return next year to Bandon Dunes.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 260-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.