Feature Interview with Jay Blasi
1. Walk us through your career path in golf course architecture. How did you start?
Well my love for golf pretty much started at birth and golf architecture wasn’t much further behind. My dad grew up on the south side of Chicago and caddied at Beverly CC. After college he became a high school teacher and during his summers off he worked on a grounds crew. He befriended the superintendent (Monroe Miller) and when my parents bought their first home, my dad got Monroe to build a putting green in the back yard. The day I was born my dad brought plastic clubs to the hospital. As an infant I was crawling around on the putting green and before long I was playing golf. When I was 5 or 6 I would doodle golf holes in crayon on the back of placemats in restaurants. My family would take road trips every year and I would look out the window and imagine golf holes in farm fields.
I didn’t get serious about golf architecture until high school. That is when I read some books and magazine articles about golf design. I just loved it. I spent hours doodling layouts. In high school, I was profiled in the state paper and asked to list my career goal. I replied “To design a golf course that will host the U.S. Open”.
Even with my passion for golf architecture, for some reason I didn’t really consider it a viable career. As a kid, I had met many businessmen on the golf course and business just seemed logical as a major in college. When I enrolled at Wisconsin it was my parents who encouraged me to forget business and focus on golf design. They said business will always be there, you should try to do what you love. I found out most architects got a degree in Landscape Architecture and that is what I did.
While at UW I did two year-long golf projects where I designed imaginary courses on real land. One of which was a 2nd course for University Ridge (an RTJII design where I worked in high school). The other was a nine-hole addition to the course my golf team played at in high school. There I was doing a parallel project to Kevin Norby, the architect of the real project. As a result, I ended up interning one summer with Herfort-Norby in Minneapolis while still in school.
Leading up to graduation I reached out to all the architects in the ASGCA. I wrote personal letters, sent a full portfolio, made calls, took road trips and stopped by offices. Still, there wasn’t a single job in the entire U.S. when I graduated. I spent a few months in Baltimore at a Landscape Architecture firm, working alongside a good friend of mine.
On my 2nd week in Baltimore I got a call from RTJII asking if I wanted to interview. I was lucky enough to get the job and my first day at RTJII was September 10, 2001. Two days later and they likely would have told me not to come. I spent 11 years at RTJII and in March of this year I started my own company Jay Blasi Design.
2. Under what circumstance(s) did you learn the most?
I’ve learned valuable lessons from numerous sources in a wide variety of settings. And the most important things I’ve learned have rarely been a direct golf architecture lesson.
Golf wise I learned the most by traveling. Our family went on road trips every year and we always played golf. I was exposed to lots of different courses and I absorbed everything. I was lucky enough to play Pebble Beach at the age of 14 and the experience transcended the game. Since that time I have always enjoyed visiting a wide variety of courses.
Entering college I didn’t know an Oak from a Maple, how to draft, or anything about drainage. I was a good student, and I really knew golf, but I had to learn just about everything else related to golf architecture. Landscape architecture was a great way to learn about a wide variety of subjects that I could apply in some way to golf architecture.
I learned a lot about people on the course. As a child I grew up on a muni and saw how the course could be a hub for a community. Later we joined a club and I found myself playing golf with CEO’s or successful business men and women. At 12 years old, I learned how to communicate in that setting. By high school I probably would have been more comfortable approaching Donald Trump than the cute girl in class.
I learned about working under designers and the dynamics of an office environment by interning, my brief stint in Baltimore and at RTJII. And I learned a great deal about perception versus reality by seeing both the public and private sides of a golf design project.
3. How did you interact with Robert Trent Jones II?
My relationship with Bobby is one that evolved over time. As a teenager, I read magazine articles about his travels and courses. I read his book, Golf by Design, and I was in awe of his life and career.
I first met him on my interview. He said hello asked where I was from and we talked about Wisconsin and University Ridge. I showed him my college project and he said “nice routing”. I remember he liked the fact I was short.
Once I joined the team, I was fortunate enough to interact with him in a wide variety of settings. I felt like I had a good and somewhat unique relationship with Bobby. He would often pick my brain on architecture, new courses, etc. He is constantly asking others what they think. I wasn’t afraid to share my true feelings and I think he appreciated that. We would have long talks about golf, politics, travel, his past work, etc. Many times it felt like a father / son or grandfather / grandson type of relationship. Other times it was definitely boss and employee. Bobby is truly one of a kind. One of the more interesting and engaging people I have ever met. As anyone who knows him will tell you, he can be one of the more entertaining, fun loving and charming people you will ever meet. On the other hand, and within the same conversation, he can be extremely competitive, aggressive and confrontational.
More than anything golf related, I felt like I learned about places and cultures, people and projects. The most valuable thing I ever learned from him was that everyone sees things through their own eyes. Two people can look at the exact same hole (or shaped landform) and see something different. So it is very important to really communicate and try to understand what someone else sees before debating the merits. I use that everyday.
4. You achieved fame from Chambers Bay. How did you become the point person for the Jones organization at Chambers Bay?
As it relates to Chambers Bay or any other projects at RTJII, I am happy to share my personal thoughts, feelings and experiences but they should be viewed as just that – my personal accounts. Just as Bobby taught me, everyone sees things through their own eyes, and others at RTJII may have a very different view as to how things unfolded or my role in projects, etc.
My lens is but one of hundreds and I hope that by sharing my stories, I won’t take away from the amazing efforts of so many great people who poured their hearts and souls into these projects. As is the case in any golf project, there are dozens if not hundreds of people who contribute to the creation of the course. From secretaries to caddies, engineers to trench diggers it takes a village. I was very fortunate to be a part of the process.
Like anything good in life my role at Chambers Bay came about as a combination of vision, passion, hard work and LUCK.
I joined RTJII in 2001 and for the first few years I assisted other designers with their projects. I would set up base maps, input designs, prepare renderings, etc. Quite often I would be asked to prepare a fancy drawing of a routing plan from a sketched up pencil routing drawn by one of the other designers. Typically, I would get that done and then stay late at night, create my own routing for the same site and leave it on the designers desk. The next day I would try to get feedback on my ideas. Eventually when someone got too busy, they would let me prepare a routing.
Chambers Bay appeared on the radar in 2003. John Strawn, former CEO and Business Development guy, told me about the project. I immediately tried to get my hands on any maps or information that came in the office. The RFP was a big one and Pierce County received 56 proposals. They narrowed it down to 5 and those 5 were invited to schedule a site tour. I’ll never forget, we were supposed to go up in early December but Bruce Charlton’s (our President and Chief Design Officer) schedule changed and our visit got switched to Dec 23rd. I was scheduled to fly home to Wisconsin that night for Christmas so I was devastated that I wouldn’t be able to go. Not willing to miss out I found a way to switch flights around and go on the tour.
IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT.
It was the biggest sandbox I could imagine. I was running up sand piles like a 5 year old.
Because our interview was in January, we didn’t have much time to pull everything together. Our team agreed to come back from the holidays and review any ideas / routings we all had for the presentation.
When we returned from the break I had done some routings and had put together ideas on how I thought we should present. And Bruce said “go for it.” There was so much other paperwork to be done for the submittal (firm history, insurance, projects, references, statement of approach, etc) that he and John Strawn led those efforts.
The next few weeks were filled with all-nighters preparing plans, renderings, and an extremely detailed presentation. Mike Gorman (another young designer in the office) and I lived off PF Changs and Cheesecake Factory late night and I remember driving home at 6am regularly with Howard Stern on. A few months earlier I went to the PGA Championship at Oak Hill and met a guy who made custom bag tags for a living. As part of the interview, I thought it would help us sell our vision and thoughts of the potential of the project if we made up special bag tags that said US Open on them. I guessed that if things went perfect we might be able to host the event in 2030. In hindsight it was a pretty absurd thing to do, but at 25 years old I certainly believed anything was possible.
Once we interviewed and got the job, there was a very strict schedule and the tasks pretty much required someone devoted full time to that project. I wanted to be that guy, pushed to be that guy, and because Bruce was so busy working on a project in Sweden, many other projects and business development, etc. I got to be that guy.
The next 3 years was the most magical of journeys.
The people up at Pierce County became like family to me. I got to be a part of all aspects of the project. I got to work with the staff at the course before opening as we did caddie training and promoted the course. I can’t tell you how great the entire staff up there is. They have poured their souls into the place and they elevate the experience.
During pre-opening events I met my wife Amy. She works for KemperSports and we got to know each other while working on the website. Five years later we were married on the 15th tee and John Ladenburg’s (Pierce County Executive / Project Visionary) assistant, Connie Perry, performed the ceremony.
As you can imagine, I’m pretty glad I changed my travel plans on Dec 23, 2003.
5. What was the inspiration for the look and feel of Chambers Bay?
For me personally, the inspiration came from two places really. St. Andrew’s and the site itself. The project was so unique in that it was a County trying to create a community asset and showcase their community to visitors from around the World. It was the reclamation of a degraded site. The climate and soils provided the rare opportunity for pure links golf. And there was enough room to host a big event. In my mind I wanted Chambers Bay to be the St. Andrew’s of the US.
A place where the course would bring the community together.
A place where locals could play cheap and visitors would pay more.
A place where golfers walked and hired local caddies.
A true links experience where the ground contours dictated strategic play.
A place that would host the nation’s championship.
To take it a step further, I was passionate in my belief that we should have no par and no tee blocks. I wanted players to play matches. And that was part of the idea behind the “ribbon tees”. Players who won the previous hole could pick any spot for the next hole to start, including the uneven lies that might promote a draw or fade. The other reason for the ribbon tees was that I hated how artificial tee boxes look and I wanted there to just be a field of turf that blended into the landscape. Not little pods of flat circles or rectangles plopped all over the place.
The site itself provided the inspiration for the look. The scale of the property, the features and even the relic minor structures were so large that the golf features needed to reflect that scale. There were sand piles that had eroded over time and looked weathered, etc. With it being my first opportunity as Project Architect, I wanted the course to look completely unlike anything that RTJII had ever done before.
6. How was the all fescue grassing scheme selected?
January 5, 2005 was the day that John Ladenburg (the Pierce County Executive and Project Visionary) proclaimed “We will call it Chambers Bay and we will WALK it in 2007.”
As he said that, I leaned over to Bruce and said “Would it be inappropriate for me to climb over the table and hug him right now?” I had convinced myself that the key to making Chambers Bay a success was that the golf course had to be walking only and play firm and fast. That setup would yield a Pure Links Experience and not a water down Americanized version.
The all fescue grassing scheme was the key to selling that argument. Fescue on sand provided the firm and fast and it can’t handle the wear patterns of carts. Obviously Bandon Dunes, and the all fescue scheme, had proven the success of a Pure Links Experience. We reached out to the team at Bandon, thru KemperSports, and they were very helpful. They shared what had worked well for them and some of the things they were learning over time. We also worked with WSU extension and did test plots.
I’ll never forget being in the office one day in 2004 and talking with a colleague about the project. I shared my desire to have it be walking only and all fescue. He laughed and said there is no way any municipality would ever do a course without carts. I can remember thinking to myself maybe I was too naïve, idealistic and didn’t have enough experience to execute a real project.
But when I am passionate about something, I don’t let go of it easily and I wanted to fight for what I thought was right. I’ve learned over time that believing in the unbelievable, idealism and inexperience have been key ingredients to my success and happiness.
7. Did any specific courses in the UK provide inspiration? Did you intentionally borrow any certain playing features of any holes?
The site at Chambers Bay was so unique (an abandoned sand and gravel mine) that there wasn’t another course in UK (that I had been to) that felt the same in terms of the property.
But there were components.
Cruden Bay has the large dunes and the scale of those features was something I thought of. Dornach had some of the elevation change. The transitions from green to tee and the natural tees at St. Andrew’s was the perfect example of how tees could blend into a landscape. St. Andrew’s also served as the example for WIDTH and shared fairways.
Hole 2 is named Foxy, but it in no way represents an attempt to replicate or emulate that hole. My goal for that hole was to create a tee shot where the player was nestled in the dunes and then as the hole unfolds the player is exposed to the water and the openness of the site. My intent was to have the entire left side of the approach and green be flanked by sand creating a strong diagonal line with a windswept look. The spill off was added by Bobby and that spill off led to the name Foxy.
8. What were the primary construction challenges?
There weren’t a ton of logistical or site challenges. Pierce County provided a full year for design prior to construction so we were able to get all the routing refinements set. The property did have some different soils types despite being a sand mine. The grading plan, which moved 1.4 million yards or sand, strategically mined the good sand and capped over the poor soils.
For me personally the challenges related to it being my first project. Here I was 25-28 years old trying to do something unique, almost the opposite of other RTJII courses and I’m working with two great shapers (Ed Taano and Doug Ingram) who had been building RTJII courses for 20 years. I wanted a course without artificial drainage swales, minimal catchbasins, no artificial support mounding and no soft smooth bunkering. I wanted a course with no rough, eroded windswept bunkers, super wide fairways, false fronts, sideboards, and informal tees. All of which was the opposite of what they had perfected over 20 years. Luckily they were patient with me and they were open-minded. It didn’t hurt to have our Construction Superintendent Gary Killebrew encouraging the guys to give it a chance.
Tony Tipton, the Pierce County Project Manager, also deserves a great deal of credit for his organization of the project and how he handled all of the personalities throughout the project.
Getting the right look and feel was a challenge. We struggled getting the sand to hold on steep faces. We ended up leaving the dozer tracks as a way to stabilize the side slopes. Over time those melted away and it ended up working well. Getting the bunkers to look weathered was also a challenge. We ended up shaping them soft (or like a traditional RTJII bunker). Then I would come by and paint a jagged line that contradicted the soft landforms and then the excavator would cut out that edge.
9. How did the course hold up during the U.S. Amateur?
I felt the course held up brilliantly. The final match was between the #1 and #2 ranked amateurs in the world. The course played firm and fast. The most exciting part for me was watching the players THINK. The firm and fast conditions and ground contours forced players to think about where to land an approach shot. The players who were creative and embraced the contours were the ones that advanced. That was so rewarding to see.
I feel that pro golf (and top amateur) golf has become way too much about execution and way too little about thought. Many courses are set up soft with high rough, lateral bunkers or water and elevated multi-tied greens. That takes all thought out of the game. I appreciate wide courses with strategic angles of approach. I love courses where short grass is a hazard. I hope and think that was the case at Chambers Bay in 2010.