Congressional Country Club

For the Open, a grand course turns tricky

BETHESDA, Md. -- At 7,213 yards, Congressional Country Club was the longest course in U.S. Open history when the tournament was played there in 1997.

But length alone never satisfies the United States Golf Association -- not when the drill each year is to select a course from an elite handful of the most demanding ones in the country, then toughen it into the most rigorous test in golf.

After all, it was USGA official Sandy Tatum who at the 1974 Open uttered that famous line when somebody complained about the Winged Foot course.

"Are you trying to embarrass the best golfers in the world?" Tatum was asked.

"No," he replied, "we're trying to identify them."

As usual, months before the Open, USGA officials descended on what was already a beautiful, rolling, tree-lined and difficult golf course (138 slope) -- not to mention the playground of Washington's elected aristocracy -- and went to work taking Congressional's championship track, the Blue Course, to the brink of being unfair.

They moved tees back. They took two holes the members play as par 5s -- the 475-yard 6th and the 466-yard 10th -- and declared them par 4s.

They went to work on Congressional's large, undulating greens and slickened them to between 10.5 and 11 on the Stimpmeter.

They narrowed Congressional's somewhat generous fairways to between 28 and 39 yards wide -- and will have them mowed to seven-sixteenths of an inch. The new six-foot-wide swath of intermediate rough will be mowed to an inch and a half.

And, of course, in the grand tradition of the Open, they pretty much stopped mowing the primary rough.

A month ago, the primary rough was tree inches high and the ball sank out of sight. You could sprain a wrist simply hacking a 7-iron back into the fairway. When the 156 entrants tee it up beginning on Thursday, the rough will be at five inches. The mind boggles, the back aches.

But the Indy-fast greens, criminally narrow fairways and unruly rough are not the biggest subjects of discussion and controversy at the 97th Open. The 18th hole is.

For the first time since 1909, the Open will end not with a monster hole intended to produce a dramatic finish, but rather with a par 3.

Many of Congressional's members fought the decision; they wanted to incorporate a hole from Congressional's adjacent Gold Course, so that the Open could conclude as it did in 1964, when Ken Venturi won, on the long and glorious downhill 480-yard par-4 17th, which plays into a treacherous peninsula green.

The controversy is unwarranted: Congressional's 18th may be a par 3, but it is no ordinary golf hole.

First, the view from the tee is grand, looking to the rear of one of the most impressive clubhouses in the world.

And then there is the shot to be negotiated -- 190 yards over water, from a slightly elevated tee, into a near-peninsula green that will kick anything left into the drink, as it did my ball, or suck anything short on the right down a shaved embankment into a watery grave.

Think about finishing up on the 12th at Augusta National, a member at Congressional said recently. Images of Fred Couples and Greg Norman at the Masters abound.

But to dwell too long on the 18th hole is to neglect the rest of a wonderful golf course.

Rees Jones has undertaken considerable changes at Congressional in 1990, '95 and even earlier this year. He took Devereux Emmet's original 1924 design (modified by Jones' father, Robert Trent Jones, in 1957) and rebuilt every green and bunker, regraded many fairways to eliminate blind shots and added considerable mounding.

The course opens with what should be a fairly benign 402-yard uphill par 4 for the pros. But they very quickly face a nasty 235-yard par 3, ringed by six bunkers.

The third, fourth and fifth holes are all 400-plus-yard par 4s, heavily bunkered and tree-lined.

The sixth, at 475 yards, will likely be the toughest par 4 on the course -- remember, this is one the members play as a par 5. Even with a huge tee shot, the golfers face a mid- to long-iron into a fairly flat green guarded by a pond on the front and right.

The seventh, at 174 yards, will likely be the easiest par 3 for the pros. The 362-yard eighth, the shortest par 4 on the course, should not present much of a problem.

But the ninth is another story. At 607 yards, it is not only one of the longest par 5s in Open history, it may prove to be one of the most demanding.

Bunkers lurk on both sides of the fairway off the tee, but the real test will come on the second shot. The decision? To lay up or try to hammer it over a deep, wide ravine into an elevated green surrounded by bunkers.

John Daly and Tiger Woods are the only two who have even a chance of going for the green in two.

On the back side, the golfers get no immediate relief. The par-4 10th, which the members play as a par 5, is 466 yards, from an elevated tee into a fairway that slopes left to right, down toward a creek that runs the length of the hole. This hole will take its toll.

The 11th doesn't let up, either -- 415 yards, severe dogleg left, sloping fairway into a well-bunkered, contoured green. The 12th, a 187-yard par 3, features a narrow entry into the green, three sizable bunkers and an undulating green guaranteed to produce its share of 3-putts.

The 13th, 461 yards, is one of the toughest par 4s at Congressional. Uphill, the fairway narrows as it approaches the green, and anybody with a tee shot in the rough is going to have a real test reaching the green in two.

At the 439-yard 14th, the second shot into an elevated, bunkered green partially hidden behind trees on the right should cause the most problems. Venturi bogeyed this hole three times in '64. The 15th is another uphill par 5, which only a few will be able to reach in two.

Congressional members can't wait to see what happens at the 441-yard 16th. Even Woods may drive to the landing area that falls off into about 60 yards of rough, before starting back up hill to the green. Will Woods or Daly try to blow it over the landing and the rough for a flip wedge into the green? The reward is not worth the risk.

The 17th is the one hole that the USGA has altered considerably. When the Kemper Open was played at Congressional for several years during the '80s, the pros blew it over the crest in the fairway to the downslope, leaving them with short irons into the peninsula green. But for the Open, the USGA has moved the tees back 40 yards, forcing players to hit a much longer club on their second shots. Watch for severe pin placement on at least two days, and watch for a lot of splashes.
As usual, no one is likely to tear up this U.S. Open course.

Orginally published June 8, 1997