Stay & Play

Walk in the Footsteps of Giants at Chambers Bay Golf Course

A pilgrimage to play the only golf course in the Pacific Northwest to host a major championship, and a stay in Tacoma’s up-and-coming Point Ruston village should be on your docket this summer.

By Sam Stites May 16, 2023

The par five 18th hole (Tahoma) at Chambers Bay is home to the iconic shot from the 2015 US Open which thrust this course into the annals of golf history. 

Standing on the left edge of the fairway at the par five 18th hole of Chambers Bay Golf Course, I’m about 330 yards out from the pin—a lot farther than I’ve reached with any club in my bag. Instead of going for it, I choose to lay up with an easy five iron back into the center of the fairway.

I chunk it, flying my ball only about 80 yards directly into a wide sand trap that jigsaws its way into the left side of the fairway.

Its pouring rain and chilly on this President’s Day afternoon in University Place, Washington. I’m wet, cold, and tired on my way to shooting one of the worst rounds of my life. I’m also wearing a smug grin that I can’t seem to wipe of my face despite the circumstances.

Chambers Bay is a fickle golf course that has vexed even the best of the best. I’m reminded of this fact as I approach the sand trap which just gobbled up my ball and stumble upon a plaque laid into the fairway just short of the bunker.

“June 21, 2015, US Open, Final Round, Jordan Spieth, 3 Wood,” the handsomely weathered piece of metal reads.

The plaque commemorates the magnificent second shot Speith hit 285 yards to land 20-feet from the pin. It followed a critical double bogey on 17 just moments before while on his way to winning the US Open that year—the signature event that elevated Chambers Bay into the annals of golf history, as well as garnering the course both respect and controversy.

The par three 9th hole (Olympus) at Chambers Bay has two tee boxes which rotate depending on the day. Both shots require carrying the ball nearly 200 yards over a daunting bunker to land on this steeply countered green. 

The Course

Built true to the Scottish links style, the course twists and turns its way up and down a dramatic hillside overlooking two miles of idyllic shoreline on the south Puget Sound. Most holes afford spectacular views of the water and islands across the bay while others bear towering sand dunes covered in tall grass that draw focus toward only the target.

As challenging as it is, Chambers Bay lends itself naturally to a beginner or intermediate player’s game. Many of the fairways are wide with plenty of landing zone off the tees; dunes lining most holes sometimes help errant shots roll or kick back toward the fairway at times; the rough is sparse and low where it is present; there’s only one tree on the entire course and it’s out of play. You can show up to Chambers Bay with just a single sleeve of balls and not lose one the entire round.

The par three 15th hole at Chambers Bay features a stunning view downhill toward the Puget Sound and the only tree on the property, for which the Lone Fir hole is named. 

Even on a damp day, conditions hold up well and its greens remain firmer and faster than most courses in the soggy Pacific Northwest. Both the course and US Golf Association received some fair and not so fair criticism during the 2015 US Open for what was perceived as an overly difficult setup and tough conditions on the greens. Many of those issues were remedied with a switch to new grass in 2019—and the iconic par three 15th hole featuring the property’s lone fir (a Douglas fir, with a dubious past) received an overhaul just this year.

But don’t get it in your head that Chambers Bay will be kind to you. The starter working the day I visited in February chuckled as I asked for advice for first-timers, responding only with, “This course loves virgins.”

Many holes require you to carry significant yardage over dunes and football-field sized bunkers. Its greens are many-tiered and fall off so sharply at their edges that landing a wedge on them—let alone sinking a long putt—requires all the surgical precision of trying to park a jumbo jet at Trader Joe’s. If you land your ball on a dune and aren’t lucky enough to see it kick off, you might have to maneuver like some sort of mountain goat to hit your next shot.

Chambers Bay, like many great courses, is walking only. That means you’ll get about 14,000 steps in across 600 feet of elevation gain which can take its toll during a day of 18 holes or more.

Spectators of the 2015 US Open had their work cut out for them scaling the hilly Chambers Bay to watch the best golfers in the world battle it out on an excruciatingly challenging course. 

The Legacy

What makes Chambers Bay a particular treat for golf fans is the course’s illustrious, if not odd, history that allows the average golfer to walk in the footsteps of giants. What makes that history odd is that Chambers Bay has cemented its place as one of America’s great golf courses in just 16 short years of existence—the blink of an eye in the timeline of golf’s 600-year history.

Chambers Bay entered the history books with Spieth’s win at the US Open, a win which came just months after taking home the green jacket at The Masters. It was in the middle of a record streak that saw Spieth—just 21 at the time, and one of the youngest to ever win the tournament—rocket to fame with five wins on the season, including the PGA Tour Championship to earn himself the FedEx Cup, one of golf’s most coveted titles.

The golf course’s physical history and development are also the stuff of legend. The 950-acre property sitting on a beautiful slice of undulating land looks vastly different than what it did over the past 100 years, being transformed from what was once the site of a gravel mine, a lumber mill, rail yard, and several other heavy industrial uses.

In 1992, Pierce County bought the property and it sat unused except by local off-roaders for more than a decade as local officials pondered what to do with it. Not until one county executive had a wild dream to build a course that would one day host the US Open did the region work together to create a world-class facility that would challenge both championship golfers and the general public.

Portland golfers used to the Great Blue course at Heron Lakes Golf Club might find some aspects of ChambersBay a tad familiar. That’s because when project leaders were choosing between more than 50 proposals from the industry’s greatest architects, including firms carrying names like Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus, they landed on Robert Trent Jones, Jr., whose company designed both the Greenback and Great Blue courses in north Portland.  

County officials who pushed for the development of Chambers Bay were criticized for what some viewed as an outlandish plan to spend $20 million to build it, but were soon vindicated when the course landed contracts to host the 2010 US Amateur and 2015 US Open just seven months after opening in 2007—the latter of which was estimated to have been a $140 million boon to the local economy.

Today, Chambers Bay stands out as one of the great golf courses of the West Coast, if not the entire nation. Its nickname, “America’s St. Andrews,” is a nod to the oldest course in the world where the game of golf was born—and there are some easy comparisons to draw between the two. They’re both built in the old links style known for their natural construction atop sandy mounds along the seashore. They’re both open to members of the public. And they’ve both played host to major championships.  

Since 2015 the course has held even more high-profile events, including the US Men’s Amateur Four-ball Championship in 2021, and the US Women’s Amateur Championship in 2022. The course also just announced it was selected to host the US Junior Amateur Championship in 2027, as well as the return of the US Amateur Championship in 2033.

“We’ve got this amazing pedigree, and we’ve been on a wild ride of championships,” says Zac Keener, general manager for Chambers Bay. “The Pacific Northwest, we love golf. Most people around here really cherish time and things outside, so to get the opportunity to build a golf course on a property like this just doesn’t come around very often.”

The Logistics

Visiting Chambers Bay from Portland requires only a quick drive of just two hours and 20 minutes up Interstate 5. It’s close enough that a day trip for a single round isn’t out of the question, but far enough that those wishing to play 36 holes have good reason to find lodging nearby to make a weekend of it.

The development group behind the course had plans with Pierce County to eventually build a resort including a boutique hotel, restaurant, and other amenities, but announced earlier this year that those plans were discontinued, citing concerns of an impending economic downturn.

Instead, Portland visitors should stay in nearby Tacoma where the city has made strides over the last decade to position itself as a hub for tourism around the south Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. The city’s Point Ruston neighborhood—located on the waterfront just 10 minutes north of downtown Tacoma on the former site of a copper smelter—is the perfect basecamp for a first-time visit to the south Sound. This bustling village next to the 760-acre Point Defiance Park has a similar story to that of Chambers Bay, having transformed from a superfund site into a major focal point and source of pride for the city.

The Point Ruston waterfront includes plenty of options for dining, shopping, and entertainment within a few minutes' walk of the Silver Cloud Hotel. 

Today, Point Ruston is home to several new residential developments surrounded by restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and parks, all with gorgeous views of the Sound and Mount Rainier to the south. It also includes the Silver Cloud Hotel Point Ruston, a luxury hotel and spa that is the sister property of the Silver Cloud on the edge of northwest Portland’s Alphabet District. The hotel has 194 rooms, many of which feature waterfront views, an Italian restaurant inspired by the Pacific Northwest, and a full-service spa.

The area includes so many amenities within walking distance, visitors need not use their car except to travel to and from Chambers Bay between rounds.

Despite my own trip up north this past February being a dismal showing of my golf skills, the course still runs through my mind months later—its rolling landscape pockmarked with neatly tendered bunkers winding its way uphill and falling back down toward the deep blue water already enticing a return visit. Portland golfers, and fans of golf in general, should make it a priority to experience Chambers Bay either by making the pilgrimage to play it themselves or watching some of the world’s best up and coming players as big tournaments return in the coming years.

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