By Jason Bruno
As a former Project Architect for Robert Trent Jones II design, Jay
Blasi was able to bring his own design talents and philosophies to
the links project that became known as Chambers Bay. This June
Chambers Bay hosts the U.S Open. In our recent Q&A, Blasi talks
about what it has been like to be part of the team that will make
history - (bringing the first Fescue turf Links setup to an American
LinksNation: You grew up in Madison, Wisconsin - How did you get
started in golf?
Blasi: My father was a caddie, and he grew up on the south side of
Chicago. When he bought his first house after getting married, the
first thing he did was he built a putting green in the backyard. So
for me I was real lucky, I got to grow up with a putting green in
the backyard and was playing on that as a two year old and golf
has been part of my life ever since and Madison was big part of
LinksNation: You attended the University of Wisconsin and became
a landscape architect, afterward you joined RTJ II's staff, what was
Blasi: It was great, as a kid I knew golf . . . but I had no clue about
anything else. I didn't know the difference between an Oak Tree and
a Maple Tree. When I found out that most people who were golf
architects had a degree in Landscape architectre that's what I did.
It was a wonderful opportunity at UW because the Landscape
Architecture program was very small - there was probably 20 kids
in our class and you got to know your professors on a one to one
basis, the class itself was always working on projects, so we were
always working as teams. I felt very fortunate to have gotten a
small school experience in the setting of a major university. All
of the culture and resources of a major institution in what felt
like a small school hands on experience.
LinksNation: Were you the only student in the class who wanted
to pursue golf course design as a career?
Blasi: Yes, and I was fortunate that they allowed me to tailor
my curriculum a little bit, so when we were doing a class on a
planting design, they would let me do it as a golf hole with
landscaping around it. I did a year long independent study
project where I designed a second course for the university.
My senior thesis was another golf project, so I was the one
who did golf that year, but there were others in years prior
and years since - usually one student per class.
LinksNation: When you came out did you immediately get
hired by Robert Trent Jones jr, how did that work out?
Blasi: I had reached out to almost everybody, and there
wasn't a single job available, so that was a little scary at
that point. I had a buddy in my class who graduated a
semester before I did, and he went and was working in a
landscape architecture firm, and he said I know you want
to work in the golf field, but why don't you come work for
our firm until you can get into golf. About two weeks after
I started working with him, I got the call from Jones -
saying they were going to hire someone for the first time
in however many years, and I was one of three people
they wanted to interview. I had to go to my boss of two
weeks and ask him for time off to go interview for another
job. He couldn't have been any nicer about it.
LinksNation: (Having been in the field myself for 28 years)
I have found that people that are involved in growing,
shaping and maintaining landscapes to be among the most
interesting and down earth people to talk to. Has this been
the case in your experience?
Blasi: Absolutely, particularly the people on the course
construction teams . . . but the true heroes are the
superintendents and people who work on the turf care
side. They get none of the glory and all of the pain, just
great people and fun to be around.
LinksNation: Bravo to that, no better people to talk to
than superintendents. I've been fortunate to sit down
with some of the best in the industry - Matt Shaffer at
Merion, Ken Nice at Bandon, Lukus Harvey at PGA Nat'l,
and Brad Boyd down at Dorado Beach.
Blasi: Yes, You bring up some great guys, I've had a
chance to meet Matt and I've been around Ken many
times now. I love the fact that it is one big community
of people who help each other out. For example, when
we were working on Chambers Bay, we were researching
fescue so we went down and spent time at Bandon Dunes.
Their whole team was happy to help and if we ever had
an issue we can call them. Superintendents everywhere
are one big community that helps each other and that's
pretty refreshing in this day and age.
LinksNation: To take that a step further, during my interview
with Matt Shaffer at Merion in 2011, he realized by some of
the questions I was asking that I had some kind of background
in Agronomy, so in the middle of the Q& A, he turns the tables
and starts asking me questions. After our interview he takes
me for a tour of the entire property describing each and every
modification that will be done to each hole on Merion's East
course. As we finish, he turns to me and says, "How would
you like to work with my staff and be a volunteer for us at the
2013 U.S Open?" I was speechless and incredibly appreciative
that this man at the top of his profession had the thought and
generosity to offer me such an opportunity. It was a great
experience being part of that crew, more satisfying than
anything I've ever done media wise. Who takes their moment,
and then turns it around and gives you one of your own? That
was an A-ha moment for me. I realized being able to grow turf
and manage people is his job, but relationship building takes a
special person - Shaffer inspired me that day . . . (but I digress).
Lets talk Chambers, a few years back I was at the course opening
of Dorado Beach East in Puerto Rico and had dinner with Bruce
Charlton (RTJ II lead designer), and he was just raving about
Chambers, and impressed to me that I had to get out there and
see the place. When I finally did in April 2012, I was really excited
to see what you guys had created . Tell me about the what makes
Chambers Bay so unique.
Blasi: There are a couple of things, the thing that really jumps off
the page for everybody is the scale of the property. Particularly if
you start your journey from the clubhouse and look out over the
entire course and the Puget Sound. When you actually get down
there, you realize that those things you see as specks down there
are concrete walls that are 40 feet tall, and those mounds you see
lining the fairways are actually dunes that are 55 ft tall. In terms
of great golf, the most common dominator in all great courses
around the world is sandy soil. The fact that the site was a former
sand and gravel mine, when we had the opportunity to work the
site there were these huge stack piles of sand that looked somewhat
like dunes, but basically the fact that there was sand in the pit that
alone was the key. For any golf architect, that's like striking oil or
finding gold. Couple that with the fact that it's in the Pacific North-
west, and has a climate that would be conducive to Fescue, and
being adjacent to water it just became the perfect confluence to
try to create a links experience.
The view from outside the clubhouse
LinksNation: We all know it played a little too baked out for the Am
in 2010, has the USGA tipped their hand as to how it will be set up
for the U.S Open?
Blasi: That U.S Amateur was definitely a trial run, and if you ask
Mike Davis, I think he will admit that they probably crossed the
limit on one of the days during the stroke play (portion of the
championship), but that's what they had to do to in order to
learn. Also, the Amateur was played in August, which gave
them all summer long to bake it out. The site isn't that windy
in general, it's usually no more than a one or two club wind,
but there was a day during the Amateur when it was blowing
like 20-25 mph . . . with the fairways like concrete, that was
really hard. Mike has shared some thoughts about what they
learned from the Amateur and how they'll put that into play.
From a firmness standpoint, the golf course is plenty firm, it
will only get more firm as we get closer to the championship.
It just comes down to working with Josh Lewis (Super at
Chambers) and Eric Johnson (Director of Agronomy) on what
Mike is looking for.
LinksNation: The biggest challenge for the Agronomy Team
at Merion in '13 was rain, but Shaffer's little gem held it's
own in the end (with Justin Rose winning at 1 over par).
What do you expect to be the biggest challenges for Josh
Lewis and the Agronomy Team at Chambers the week of
Blasi: Great question, one that has not been asked of me
till now. As you know, they have been preparing for this
week for 7 years! Every week you get closer it only gets
heightened, I do think it will probably be different from
Merion in that it's a sandy base and rain wouldn't really
be an issue - the golf course is firm and fast rain or shine.
I would think two issues: they have been growing rough
for the event (in the beginning there was no rough at
Chambers, just super wide fairways), and they're still
trying to figure out the specifics on that. The other is the
firmness, perhaps more than any other golf course, that
has hosted a major championship - the contours in and
around the greens, the kicker slopes and side boards, and
the rolls and hollows . . . when it's playing really firm and
fast a ball can land on a spot and end up 70 yards from
that spot. Just getting the right firmness and speed is
something they'll continue to work at and dial in to get
the magic formula there, because there really is a fine
line between making it the ultimate test in golf and letting
it get away from you. In order to offer up the greatest test,
you really have to push the limits . . . but you really don't
want to go over the edge.
Tee shot on the 14th
LinksNation: As one of the principal people involved in the actual
design of the course, tell me which one or two specific holes at
Chambers Bay is your favorite and why?
Blasi: I'm sure you've heard this before, but it's kind of like
picking your favorite kid - you like them for different reasons.
Some of them you like because they were a challenge to build,
others because they're beautiful, some because of strategic
reasons . . . but I will say that my favorite tee shot is on the
14th. If you haven't seen a photo of that hole before it was built,
that is one of things that makes me real proud, not many would
have a sense of what was there before - it's a pretty dramatic
transformation. It's just the ultimate test of hitting a good drive,
if you hit a good drive you're in the fairway in a great spot,
if you don't you're screwed. A great test.
The second shot into the sixth is one that I love as well, and
that was probably the biggest change during design. We were
very fortunate, Pierce County allowed us a full year to work on
the design prior to construction. There were 80 acres of vegetation
before we started, so as we drew out the preliminary routing the
sixth was going to be a par 3 - we had everything set up and staked.
The green was going to be where the fairway landing area is, and
after we got some of the clearing done, all of a sudden that little
slot in the dunes where six green is presented itself. It was the
way the sand mine was left, it was probably the best looking dune
on the whole site . . . so we roped it off and kept it as is. We moved
1.4 cubic yards of sand to make the golf course, but there were
specific parts where we didn't really touch anything and the sixth
green complex is one where we shaped in the green and added
the bunker on the left. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention 15 as one
of my favorites because I love the tree and ended up getting
married on that hole.
15th at Chambers bay
LinksNation: I'm so glad the tree was able to saved (after a vandal
tried to hack it down with an axe), it is an iconic symbol of the place.
Blasi: Another example of Karma - The vandal came along and tried
to knock it down, and ultimately the vandal was the best thing that
ever happened to the tree. Every Arborist in the state volunteered
their services to come out and help us out, and they said what the
vandal did was not a big deal - we can patch that up, but just so you
know, this tree is not going to make it as it is because there are some
issues in the sub-surface and root structure. They gave us a game
plan and mapped out four things we had to do to brighten the outlook
for the tree long term. Ultimately, the tree is far better off for having
that vandal come along.
LinksNation: What's next for you and your new company (Blasi Design)?
Blasi: It's been a fun ride, I started the company in 2012. In 2013 we
did a major renovation at Century World in Wisconsin. It was a course
that RTJ jr had originally designed in the 80's and we executed the
renovation of all tees, greens, bunkers, irrigation system and rerouted
five holes. I'm currently working on Santa Ana Country Club in Orange
County, California. We're in the design phase now and will be in
construction next year. We're going to do a complete "Golden Age"
style deisgn, what is there now is an outdated 80's style design. Very
excited about that one. Coming down the road is Sharpe Park in San
Francisco, we plan on restoring the Mackenzie back to it.
Special Thanks to Jay Blasi and Jane Dally
For more info on Jay Blasi Design: http://www.jayblasi.com/