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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Bruce Charlton felt the sand and saw a U.S. Open

The sky was woolen, the weather an unspectacular mix of Northwest dark and gloom, the first time golf architect Bruce Charlton looked across...

Seattle Times staff columnist

UNIVERSITY PLACE — The sky was woolen, the weather an unspectacular mix of Northwest dark and gloom, the first time golf architect Bruce Charlton looked across a mining crater toward Puget Sound, envisioning what he might create out of these 230 acres of gouged landscape.

He heard the thump and whine of mining equipment at the base of the crater. He drove to the crater floor and saw nothing but sand and gravel and leftover piles of what Charlton called "neat mining stuff."

"We saw it as a great opportunity to build a great, sand-based golf course," said Charlton, an architect for Robert Trent Jones II, builders of the spectacular Chambers Bay golf course.

Sand is the golden building block for golf architects. It is to them what marble was to Michelangelo. With sand, an architect can create all sorts of bumps and humps, rolls and low points in fairways, knowing the course will drain when the inevitable rains hit.

On his first visit to the site that would be Chambers Bay, Charlton, a Chicago Bears fan, saw these great dunes of sand, turned to his partner Jay Blasi and asked, "You know what Walter Payton would do with one of these?"

Then, almost as a celebration of his great fortune, Charlton sprinted up the dune, with Blasi quickly following. They knew exactly what they had here and exactly what they could create.

"We looked down and there were all these Pierce County officials looking down on us like we were the craziest son of a guns they had ever seen," Charlton said. "But our canvas is the land. Our canvas is the earth, and when you've got sand, it's a great thing. I mean, there was an immediate love we felt for the materials that we would be dealing with.

"Then, of course, you put that together with the views of Puget Sound. You see the Olympics in the distance and all the islands in the near distance. We fell in love with the place immediately. It was tough not to."

Charlton remembers walking the course before it was finished with his boss, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and Mike Davis of the United States Golf Association, who sets up the courses for the U.S. Open.

"Mike kept going, 'Wow! Wow!' " Charlton said, "then he turned to Bobby [Jones] about two-thirds of the way through the tour and said, 'Bobby, just don't screw this up.' "

They haven't. They've created a links course that is all whitecaps and sand traps; lush, rolling green hills and dramatic snow-capped vistas. Chambers Bay is a good walk unspoiled.

And even before it was opened, before the first ball flew off the first tee toward the waters of Puget Sound, Charlton and his partners understood the possibilities of this place that overlooks Old Steilacoom.

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Blasi was so sure of the potential of this new project, which originally was called Chambers Creek, he handed out bag tags at an introductory news conference that read, "Welcome to Chambers Creek, Home of the 2030 U.S. Open."

"I remember thinking, 'He's a cheeky little rascal,' " said John Strawn, CEO of Robert Trent Jones II.

Actually, Blasi was way off.

It came 15 years sooner than he predicted. It was announced Feb. 8 that Chambers Bay will host the 2015 U.S. Open.

"Other than the birth of my children, the birth of this golf course is the most important thing in my personal and professional life," Jones said on Friday. "I've been designing golf courses for 46 years and, from my perspective, ecstasy is too pale a word to describe my feelings. I was on Cloud Nine when I heard the news."

Jones, Strawn, Charlton, Blasi and the rest of their team built a course that is both modern and ancient. They turned a ravaged plot of land into something remarkable. Charlton admits the stars aligned perfectly for them.

"It's kind of a reclamation project," he said. "It's really, truly taking a degraded sight that some people would consider wasn't being used in the greatest way and turning it into a huge public park and a huge public access.

"The absolute glorious thing that the Pierce County officials gave us was this site where they still held the mining permit. It gave us the chance to take advantage of the water orientation. It was really cool. I mean, building this course, we were like kids in a sandbox, literally. It was a real treat."

The mining permit gave Charlton and his team unique flexibility. They could dig 60 feet down if they wanted to, or they could build 100 feet up.

They wanted to give the course the feel that the Sound was close on every hole. The permit gave them the opportunity to lower some of the holes as much as 35 and 40 feet.

They significantly lowered the 16th hole, so No. 2, which runs above it, still has the feel of the water.

Now, seven years before the fact and a couple of years before the U.S. Amateur is played at Chambers Bay, every golfer from scratch to hack can argue about the ways the game's best players will attack the course.

The weather will be a story.

The wind Jones calls "the invisible hazard" could rip through the course one day and whisper through it the next.

A rainy, windy day could make the U.S. Open feel like a British Open — St. Andrews at University Place.

Another day could be warm and robin's egg blue, and the shots from the blimp could make Pebble Beach look like an Omaha muni in comparison to Chambers Bay.

The course will mature in the next seven years. The game will change. Tiger Woods will be 39 when the U.S. Open is played there, and there probably is some little-known 15-year-old somewhere in the world who, by 2015, will be ready to make his first run at Woods.

But even now, without knowing how the USGA will set up the course, we can look at Chambers Bay and imagine.

There are par 5s that can be reached in two. Maybe the USGA will turn them into par 4s. And the 12th hole is a par 4 that the big hitters can reach with a driver.

"We built into the course a lot of heroic attack angles," Charlton said. "Concepts where the best players, if they can hit in and maybe even move it a little bit, they can do some wondrous things and just make the golf course play a lot shorter. I know in our design philosophy, we wanted to reward very aggressive play and give the best players in the world a chance to play aggressively.

"We certainly built a lot of forgiveness into the course, and I would be anxious to see if some of the players will take an aggressive, wide angle when the U.S. Open is on the line and when they know the penalty is either sandy dunes, or thick rough where they can't even find their ball, or they will have a difficult time just advancing the ball."

The U.S. Open is coming.

Bruce Charlton took one look at an ugly, scarred hole in the ground and saw the future. He felt the sand and saw a U.S. Open.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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