I spent Thursday through Sunday in University Place, Washington at Chambers Bay watching American golf’s national championship, the United States Open. I wasn’t alone, in fact far from it, joined by somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 other golf fans from all over the country and the world every day. It was the first time the United States Golf Association had brought this national open championship to the Pacific Northwest and the sports fans in general there and golf fans specifically, couldn’t have been more excited, accepting and thrilled.
It wasn’t, as unfortunately Fox Sports said, the first time any of golf’s majors had been conducted in the Pacific Northwest (two PGA Championships had been played in the region) but it was the first United States Open Championship and the first major to venture that way since the Seattle Seahawks turned that part of the country’s sports fans rabid. The fact that the U.S. Open was there was indeed special, made even more so because local residents Michael Putnam (University Place) and Troy Kelly (Tacoma) hit the championships initial shots, off the first and tenth tees respectively. The event had been sold out for months, volunteers signed up in record numbers and in record time and the fans showed up in droves.
Chambers Bay is a public golf course and was built on the site of an old gravel mine. It is owned by Pierce County and is just a part (albeit an expansive one) of a park enjoyed on a daily basis by residents, visitors and anybody with a family member, two legged or four, that enjoys a good walk. The golf course is the centerpiece but by no means the only piece. Before arriving, and thanks to Fox Sports, ESPN and The Golf Channel I had seen the property but television, even high definition television, doesn’t come close to seeing the place in person. It is expansive, impressive and breathtaking.
I got there Thursday and immediately heard rumblings, mostly by folks who spent the entire week in an air conditioned media center, that it was a “miserable” fan experience so I headed out to find out for myself. The main criticism was that you couldn’t follow a player, whether he be your most or least favorite, for the entire round. THAT critique proved absolutely valid. In fact it was frustrating that you couldn’t follow a grouping, pairing or player down the first or tenth fairways after they had begun their round.
Another gripe was that you couldn’t get close enough to see any golf. This I found to be absolutely untrue. As I wandered around the property each and every day I found plenty of places to park myself and watch groups go through. One particularly satisfying spot was behind the par three, third tee. You could get up close and see EVERYTHING the hole has to offer. While there I struck up a conversation with a local lad who had been to the course every day since the event “started” on Monday (every day a ticket would allow him access to the grounds) and had enjoyed every minute. He was even, not so secretly, hoping for a Monday playoff so he could enjoy the experience for one more day.
As I left him I walked and watched golf on 11 for a bit. A great spot to see second shots to the par 4 and then walked some more heading this time up the hill to spots that overlooked the entire property. Along the way I overheard hundreds of voices and none of them were grouchy. As I paced along the perimeter I saw approaches to 13, T shots down the 14th (in fact from where I was I could see the entirety of that hole and many more). Further along I could see birdie putts made on 7 green, then 8 green and then the entirety of the par three 9th. And, by the way, I was never alone and it was great exercise.
Now I would be lying if I said I was right on top of the action, I wasn’t, but that didn’t stop me from seeing plenty of it. In addition the USGA had constructed more grandstands than they had at any U.S. Open in history and they were full much of the time. Vistas of the holes along the Puget Sound (15, 16, 17) were also plentiful and satisfying. The other thing I loved about my particular fan experience was the roars that you could hear from all over the golf course when Phil or Rory or Jordan or Dustin did something spectacular. Was it dusty? Yes. Was it hilly? Yes. Were there places on the golf course spectators were not allowed to go? Again, yes but did you attend the United States Open Championship at Olympic Club in San Francisco, Merion in Philadelphia or Pinehurst in North Carolina? I rest my case. Another thing that added to my, and many others, enjoyment was the excellent job done by the folks at Sirius XM U.S. Open radio and American Express providing wall to wall coverage of the championship through portable, individual radios.
Here’s the deal. The players were unhappy because their families, friends, support systems and entourages couldn’t be within eye sight every step of the way. I get it. Journalists and so called journalists were unhappy because the USGA had gotten sick of the ever growing “Inside the Ropes” presence at the national championship and scaled back on granting such covered access. So you ended up with some unhappy players and a bunch of scorned writers. That added up to “everyone” having an “awful fan experience”.
Problem is nobody really spoke to the “fans”.