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Congressional Country Club: A New Blue

Has anything changed since the last U.S. Open at Congressional? How about 18 revamped greens, 363 additional yards, a new finishing hole, and a jump in par from 70 to 71

By: David Barrett

Appeared in Summer 2011 LINKS

What’s new at Congressional Country Club?

The greens, for one thing. Really new, in fact. The Bethesda, Maryland, club closed its Blue course from July 2009 to June 2010 to rebuild them for the 2011 U.S. Open, a project that was undertaken perilously close to the playing of the national championship. “Candidly, we were a little nervous,” admits Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association man in charge of course setup in both his old role as senior director of Rules and Competitions and his new one as Executive Director. “If something had gone wrong, I really don’t think we’d have had much wiggle room.”

Fortunately, no wiggling was required. And there should be less wiggling of balls on the greens now that the troublesome poa annua surfaces have been replaced by smoother bentgrass. But the decision to tear up the greens and rebuild them from the subsurface up wasn’t made because the Open was coming. It was done to improve conditions for members, especially late in the summer when the heat takes its toll.

Congressional lies in the dreaded “transitional zone” between North and South, where it’s tough for northern grasses to survive the summer heat but there’s enough of a winter that southern grasses have a challenge, too. When the greens were rebuilt in 1989 they were seeded with bentgrass but they were gradually taken over by poa annua, which makes for a slightly bumpier surface, especially late in the day. Besides that, the drainage was considerably less than ideal, which only exacerbated the problems. Now the greens are a hardy hybrid bentgrass, with much improved drainage that promotes the firmer surfaces favored by the USGA.

“It was done for day-to-day golf, but we are a definite beneficiary,” says Davis. “The way they built the greens and with the newer grasses we’re going to be able to get them firmer and faster even if we get a bunch of rain or a bunch of heat.”

Either of those is a strong possibility in Washington, D.C., it should be noted.     

Another benefit was the ability to slightly modify some green slopes, such as the back left portion of the 14th, which Davis says the USGA couldn’t use in the 1997 U.S. Open. “I ended up calling some PGA Tour officials and asked them, ‘By the way, did you ever get a hole location back left on 14 [in the AT&T National held at Congressional]?’ They said no.”

The AT&T is the latest in a line of professional events at Congressional. The club dates back to 1924, but big-time tournaments didn’t arrive until Robert Trent Jones built nine new holes in 1957 and heavily revised one of the original Devereux Emmet nines in 1961 to create the Blue course. (The Gold course dates to 1977 when George and Tom Fazio added nine holes to the other Emmet original nine.)

First came the 1964 U.S. Open, won by Ken Venturi (below) in stirring fashion as he overcame heat exhaustion on a 36-hole final day. Then it was the 1976 PGA Championship, where putter extraordinaire Dave Stockton holed a 12-foot par putt on the 72nd hole for a one-stroke victory. Congressional has had two stints of holding PGA Tour events, the Kemper Open from 1980 to 1986 and the AT&T National in 2007 to 2009 (scheduled to return in 2012). After a Rees Jones redesign in 1989, it hosted the 1995 U.S. Senior Open won by Tom Weiskopf and the 1997 U.S. Open, where Ernie Els prevailed in a tight battle over Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman.

This third U.S. Open has a third set of finishing holes. The changes came about because nobody was sure what to do with the Blue course’s original 18th hole, a par three. In 1964, the USGA elected not to use that hole, finishing instead on the everyday 17th, a long downhill par four with a peninsula green. Two holes were enlisted from the additional nine to make the routing work. The same arrangement held for the 1976 PGA and the Kemper Opens of the 1980s.

At the 1997 U.S. Open, the Blue course was played exactly the way the members played it, finishing on a 190-yard par three. It was the first U.S. Open to end on a par three since 1909. The reviews weren’t positive, including from the USGA itself.

“It wasn’t as if I was philosophically opposed to finishing on a par three. It’s just that this particular par three was nothing more than a 6- or 7-iron, and a touring pro generally doesn’t miss the green from that distance,” says Davis, who was on the Rules and Competitions staff for the 1997 Open.

A few years later, Rees Jones was called in to design a new par three to replace the old 18th. By reversing the direction of the hole to play away from the clubhouse it now fits neatly into the routing as the 10th hole, while also making for a much shorter walk from the 9th green than the old 10th hole.

The announcement of the redesign, which was implemented in 2006, nearly coincided with the announcement that the 2011 U.S. Open would go to Congressional—not exactly a coincidence.

According to Ben Brundred III, co-chairman of Congressional’s U.S. Open committee, USGA officials “let it be known that they would love to come back, but they didn’t want to finish on a par three again.”

Davis, not entirely inconsistently, says the change was “not something we mandated.” In any case, there must have been plenty of support at the club for the change. Many Congressional members were unhappy with the USGA in 1997 for not following past practice and making the everyday 17th hole the finishing hole. It follows that those members would favor a change that would settle the issue once and for all by turning the 17th into the 18th.
The par four made famous by Venturi’s slow walk to victory in 1964 just feels like a finishing hole. In addition to the grandstand near the green, there’s an amphitheater effect extending back up the fairway, providing a view for thousands. It’s also an extremely demanding finish in the U.S. Open mold.

“You have to hit a great tee shot, then you have this downhill lie, sometimes sidehill, hitting to a green where the back part of it sticks out into a peninsula,” says Davis. “You’ve got to hit two great shots. You’ll see very few birdies, so you lose some of that excitement. But this is the classic really difficult finishing hole.”

The par four has been stretched to 523 yards thanks to a new tee. But it’s downhill, so it’s more likely to be a mid-iron approach than a long iron. But it’s a scary mid-iron to a green that extends into the water, with the back portion guarded by the hazard on three sides. Driving in the short grass is very important here, because a ball that lands in the rough won’t get the big roll you get on the fairway down-slope, leaving a long and less controllable second shot. 

This hole was decisive in 1997 when Els boldly struck a 5-iron within 10 feet of the flag on the dangerous back left portion of the green, while Montgomerie played it safer with a 6-iron to the front part of the green and left himself a long putt. Els didn’t make the birdie, but still went one stroke ahead when Monty three-putted. Minutes later, Tom Lehman, needing a birdie to tie for the lead, pulled his approach into the water.

“There’s a big roll on that green,” says Jones, noting the crucial three-putt by Montgomerie. “If there’s anything that bothers the pros, it’s having a putt that goes up and down. There’s a lot of contour on Congressional’s greens. The design concept is that it really behooves you to go for the flag. Your only birdie opportunities are going to be from 10 or 20 feet, not when you have to putt over a roll.”

Just to add to the difficulty of the 18th hole, the banks were shaved so that any approach shot missing the back portion of the green rolled down into the water.

The USGA also stripped the rough off the steep downslopes bordering the 16th green on the left, back, and right. That’s a reachable par 5 of 579 yards, but with a difficult recovery shot awaiting them if they miss the green, players must now weigh risk against reward in deciding whether to go for it.

Showing that the USGA isn’t all fire and brimstone these days, the 6th hole was played as a par five instead of as a par four in past Opens, raising par from 70 to 71. That creates another risk/reward par five, guarded by water front and right.

“When I worked the Open in 1997, I never liked the idea of that being a par four because the water is right up against the collar of the green,” says Davis. “I’m thinking, here you have a long [475 yards] par four, and you want to put a hole location on the right side of the green up against the pond but you’re saying to yourself I don’t know how fairly we can do that when they are hitting a 4-iron in.”

A new tee was built to stretch the hole to 555 yards, making it a legitimate but reachable par five. To further complicate the players’ second-shot decisions, the slope behind the green was cut to fairway height so that if a player bails out long the ball can roll very far past the green, making for a very difficult up and down. What played as the toughest hole on the course in 1997 is now an opportunity for a birdie—or anything from an eagle to a double bogey.

One of the main themes in preparing Congressional for the U.S. Open was to shift fairways to bring bunkers back to the edge of the short grass. Narrowing of the fairways had left most of the fairway bunkers sitting out in the rough and therefore not as much in play, but moving fairways sideways enabled key bunkers on various holes to be brought more into play. What’s more, some of the new tees were built not only back but also at an angle that would make fairway bunkers more of a factor. On the 494-yard, par-4 11th hole, probably the most difficult on the course now that the 6th is a par 5, the fairway was shifted to the right so that it abuts a stream, bringing that hazard very much into the picture.

Eight new tees since 1997 stretch the scorecard yardage from 7,213 to 7,574. In many cases, that brings landing areas back into play that increased distance had allowed players to fly over. It’s also somewhat misleading because a big part of Davis’s setup philosophy is flexibility, which includes moving tees up on different holes each day.

“It’s a 7,500-yard course, but that gives Mike a chance to change the course each day and have it play around 7,200 or 7,300,” says Jones.

While there’s much that’s new at Congressional in 2011, none of it is a complete break with the past. The greens were rebuilt to mostly the same contours, the fairway bunkers are being brought back into play the way they used to be, landing areas on par 4s have been restored by new tees, the 6th hole was always a par 5 for the members, and the current 18th hole played as the finishing hole in the 1964 U.S. Open.

We can only hope that the drama of past Opens at Congressional will also be retained. Venturi’s battle with debilitating fatigue and Els’s narrow victory both added considerably to U.S. Open lore.

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