Column: U.S. Open at Chambers Bay letting nature take its course

Rory McIlroy hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on Tuesday.

Rory McIlroy hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on Tuesday.

(Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

Later this week, golf fans will tune into the U.S. Open here. They will see lots of brown. They will adjust their TV sets, trying to get more green. It won’t help.

There is more at stake this week in western Washington than merely deciding a major golf champion.

Certainly, fans will remember the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay by what happens: as in, the year that Rory won by three, or that Tiger finally made his comeback, or that Jordan won his second straight major.

The governing United States Golf Assn. will remember it that way too. But it also hopes to remember it as a turning point, one that begins to change the perceptions and practices of the game itself.

The usual four majors will be held this year. But three of those four will vary from the soft-and-green look. That’s no coincidence.


The Masters has already brought us lush and plush. If Billy Payne, Augusta National’s chairman, ever spotted a brown spot on a fairway there, the groundskeeper would be on the first train out of town. The Masters will always be azaleas and manicured plant life and more green than a cornfield in Iowa. It’s the Masters. It gets a pass.

But then come the next three.

First, the U.S. Open here, on a course brown and bumpy, sandy and nourished more from nature than a water hose.

In a month, the British Open at St. Andrews. Again, it’s on a course slightly brown and bumpy, with huge greens that run true but don’t look it, and with natural grass and gorse that have survived for hundreds of years without excessive help from high-paid groundskeepers and hourly sprinkling.

In August, the PGA at Whistling Straits. It rises high above the western shores of Lake Michigan and is much more natural than babied. Like Chambers Bay and St. Andrews, it has a scruffy feel to it. Remember, Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits was where Dustin Johnson gave away a chance for a PGA title because he couldn’t tell a sand trap from a rough spot in the fairway and illegally grounded his club.

Suffice to say, golf is feeling the pain all of us do, especially in California, when opening our water bill. The drought is a current California thing. For the rest of the country, the excessive use of water on golf courses, and its accompanying economic fallout, is an ongoing thing.

In a breakfast briefing for a small group of reporters here Tuesday, top USGA officials spelled out their strategy for the future. It is not only a strategy forced by economic implications, but also driven by a sincere desire, they say, to keep their game healthy.

The economic crisis is clear. In the last seven years, the U.S. has lost 800 golf courses. One estimate put the annual rise in water costs for courses at 11%. Those two things cannot be disconnected.

This “back to the natural” movement began last year for the USGA, when it put on the U.S. Open, for both men and women, at a Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2 course that had been allowed to grow back to its natural loose, free and downright scruffy-looking self.

“We are hoping to change players’ perceptions,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, and the man who will be accused this week, mostly by players shooting 77, of being Attila the Hun in his course setup.

Davis admitted that golf has dug itself into its own hole in the U.S.

“For years, we have gone lush and plush,” he said. “Players like that. They are used to it.”

And he wasn’t just talking about tour players.

“The perception about Pinehurst last year was different in the U.S. than around the world,” Davis said. “The rest of the world loved it. In the U.S., it was about 50-50.”

So there is a big hill to climb here, and the key players will not be the ones playing for millions of dollars on weekends.

“If the game is going to grow,” Davis said, “you better have a game that is fun.”

It isn’t fun when the rounds are five and six hours. The USGA continues to try to address that, with only varying success. There are still way too many recreational players who couldn’t break 100 with magnets on the pins still demanding to play from the back tees.

And there are still too many golfers in the U.S. unwilling to play at a course more natural than nurtured. The current generation of U.S. golfers, according to the USGA, long ago fell in love with high shots to soft greens. The USGA is willing to take at least some of the blame for that because of its own course selection.

The result has been obvious. Monkey see on television, monkey do.

The USGA hopes that the hills, bumps, sand, scruff, lumpiness and general weirdness of Chambers Bay can somehow endear itself to the golfing populace. It has no illusions that the pros will unanimously love it. In fact, the off-the-record whining has already begun, and the first round isn’t until Thursday.

This year’s Chambers Bay U.S. Open gives the USGA the captive audience it needs to call attention to something important.

Davis said that the group’s new broadcast partner, Fox — via announcers Joe Buck and Greg Norman — will address the issue to that captive audience.

Will U.S. golfers pay attention, or will they be too busy repairing inch-deep ball marks on water-softened greens?

And if their rounds start to be over bumps and sand and scruffy stuff, will they consider their good walks spoiled?

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes