THE BLUE COURSE AT CONGRESSIONAL: THE SITE OF TWO DRAMATIC US OPENS HAS A NEW LOOK

[This article is excerpted from Arnold Palmer’s Guide to the 2011 Majors, which is available on the periodical racks in major bookstores.]  

BETHESDA, Md. —  When Congressional Country Club was conceived in 1921 as a place where members of Congress could relax and mingle with prominent businessmen, few could have anticipated that the challenging layout in the rolling horse country of suburban Maryland would one day provide the backdrop to two of the more dramatic US Open championships.     

Ken Venturi showed up at Congressional for the 1964 Open with no expectations of grandeur, having lost his once-flawless swing and nearly quit the game of golf in despair.  But In a (literally) death-defying performance, he defied heat exhaustion during a slow march to victory in humid, 100-degree temperatures to prevail,  plodding slowly through a grueling 36-hole Saturday finale over the longest Open course ever with the assistance of a doctor who supplied salt tablets and iced tea.  Venturi survived, but the 36-hole Saturday format was thereafter abolished by the USGA.    

When the Open returned to Congressional in 1997, throngs of spectators (including President and golf enthusiast Bill Clinton) turned out, eager to discover whether  new phenomenon Tiger Woods could repeat his dazzling performance at the Masters.  On this occasion Woods came up short, but fans were treated to a dramatic finish.  South Africa’s Ernie Els held his nerve admirably and prevailed after Tom Lehman’s approach shot on the 17th hole careened into the water hazard surrounding the green, and Colin Montgomerie, another long-time Open bridesmaid, missed a 5-putt par putt on the same hole (to the delight of the beer-guzzling fans who had violated the decorum of the tony club by heckling the temperamental  Scotsman throughout his round).

When the 111th US Open kicks off tomorrow on the renowned Blue Course at Congressional, the players will confront a demanding course that has undergone major modifications since 1997.  The most visible difference is a re-routing of the holes so that the round finishes on the former 17th hole, a mammoth par-4 that could play as long as 521 yards for the Open and will confront players with a nerve-wracking mid-iron approach shot from a downhill lie to a green perched on a peninsula.  In 1997, the 18th hole was a par-3, which as reconfigured now serves as the 10th hole.   Rees Jones, who assisted` with the design modifications, commented:  “At a great golf course, it’s really wonderful to have a great finishing hole, and we have that now.”

At  7,574 yards from the tips, the course will play 3615 yards longer than in 1997. Seven new tee boxes have been added.  It will also play to a par 71, rather than 70, as a consequence of the USGA’s decision to convert  the 6th hole to a par-5 that will be reachable in two shots depending on whether the player chooses to risk the water hazards in front and to the right of the green.   Mike Davis, the new executive director of the USGA who supervised the changes to the course, commented:  “We wanted it to be a risk-reward par-5.  We can get aggressive with the hole locations, and give the players a choice.”

Davis, for many years the U.S. Open set-up guru, in recent years has spearheaded some innovations in the USGA’s philosophy.   A selection of teeing grounds enables the USGA to alter the length holes play during the championship, thus presenting the players with different challenges each day.   “That makes them think more,” noted Jones.  “When they think more, I think they play better.”

Historically, the US Open has been notorious for deep rough that often forces players who hit wayward tee shots to simply hack their ball into the fairway.   In recent years, Davis has advocated a fresh approach: graduated rough that is less punitive for shots that miss the fairway by narrower margins, giving players opportunities to attack the green.  This change might prove significant at this year’s Open, given that the fairways have been narrowed from 25-27 yards.  

Mike Giufree, the director of green and grounds maintenance at Congressional, explained that the new rough, which is a variety of tall fescue, is less thick and gnarly than the former rye grass and will provide more shot-making options.     

The boldest modification to the Blue Course resulted from the club’s decision to rebuild all of the greens in the spring of 2009.  Davis admitted that the short time-frame made him a bit nervous, but Giuffre explained that the project was necessary to improve drainage and eliminate poa annua grass which did not hold up well in hot Washington summers.   His staff used global positioning technology to replicate the existing contours of the greens. 

The new greens, a hybrid bentgrass with a deeper root structure, were opened for play in June of 2010 and have matured swiftly.  “That is a short window,” said Davis.  “Thankfully they did a superb job of construction.”   Still, there is always a question of how well putting surfaces will hold up when cut to the extremely short lengths necessary to ramp up the readings on the Stimpmeter (the device used to measure green speed), particularly if the weather is hot and dry.  To prevent burn-out, the USGA has been watering some of the greens during practice rounds this week.

Only time will tell whether the 111th US Open will replicate the dramatic finishes witnessed by fans at Congressional in 1964 and 1997.  But one thing is certain: the Blue Course, always one of the toughest tests in golf, could prove to be an even greater challenge this time around.   And if the temperature hits 100, don’t forget your salt tablets!