Appeared in May/June 1997 LINKS
People seem to remember Congressional because of its place in golf history: It was where Ken Venturi won the “death march” U.S. Open in 1964, when he nearly collapsed from heat prostration, yet staggered home with a victory. They recall Congressional as a stern challenge that somehow was elevated to the realm of greatness, not so much for its classic design, but for its relentless difficulty. Small wonder that when Venturi was asked at the press interview immediately following his win what he thought of Congressional, he replied—in somewhat Gary Player-like fashion—“Best course I ever won the Open on.” Humor aside, Venturi didn’t exactly gush with praise as to the merits of the then-longest U.S. Open course in history, at 7,053 yards.
Few clubs anywhere on earth enjoy the rich heritage and superior legacy that characterizes Congressional. Located in gently rolling horse country a short jaunt from Capitol Hill, Congressional was conceived in 1921 as the brainchild of two U.S. Representatives from Indiana, Oscar Bland and O.R. Luhring. Contemplating a club where government officials could go and relax and use as a home club away from home, they enlisted the financial support of many of the top names in industry and entertainment. Founding Life Members included Charlie Chaplin, John D. Rockefeller and William C. Carnegie, plus an assortment of other luminaries from the apex of high society.
Of special significance was a round table of past, present and future presidents who were also tabbed as Founding Life Members: William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. President and Mrs. Coolidge presided at Congressional’s opening day on May 23, 1924; Hoover was the new club’s first president.
The club’s golf course opened that same year, designed by Devereux Emmet. Yet, even with its most auspicious of beginnings, Congressional floundered during the Depression and nearly went under. Enter World War II.
It so happened that the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA, was looking for a place to train men in parachute jumping, espionage, sabotage and the like. They found their place in Congressional. By 1945, the rental money secured from the U.S. Government had saved the club. The war was over; it was time to get back to leisurely pursuits such as golf.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his son Rees both have made over the Blue course, which has hosted several big events, including the 1997 U.S. Open, the Kemper Open and now Tiger Woods’ AT&T National. It also will be the site of the 2011 U.S. Open.
The par-4 3rd hole illustrates Congressional’s virtues perfectly. It demands a crushed drive to a reasonably wide fairway pinched by three bunkers up the right side that progressively narrow the landing area. A thick stand of pines will grab a hooked drive. The approach is slightly uphill to a large green that is open in front, but is otherwise framed by a huge bunker left, two pot-style bunkers right and by clusters of oaks and maples behind the green. Like many at Congressional, the hole is totally honest but fair, just exceedingly difficult in its shotmaking demands.
Congressional’s incoming nine is full of rugged, slightly uphill par 4s. Your reward for surviving this tough slog is the 18th, which served as the 17th hole in the 1997 Open. From the fairway, the golfer is greeted with the best vista on the course, a broad panorama of the downhill approach to the green, and of the stately clubhouse perched hilltop in the distance. The peninsula putting surface extends into a lake, so don’t want to miss left, right or long, but the right-to-left angled green ties directly into the existing fairway grade, so shots that land short can roll onto it.
Year founded: 1922
Architects: Devereux Emmet, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rees Jones
Year founded: 1922
A golf institution in the Nation's Capital
By: Joseph Mark Passov