Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 16, 2011

Firm, Fast, And Fair, The Blue Course Is Ready

Situated just northwest of Washington, D.C. and now nearly nine decades old, Congressional is a classic old-line American country club. The Blue Course, the older of two layouts on the property, was designed by Devereux Emmet, architect of more than three-dozen early 20th century courses, primarily in New York. Unfortunately, largely because Emmet never expanded his geographic reach, the prolific golf course designer is now largely forgotten. This weekend’s television coverage of the U.S. Open will not likely feature a tribute to Emmet, as was the case for contemporaries such as A. W. Tillinghast at Bethpage Black in 2009 and Winged Foot in 2006, or Donald Ross at Pinehurst #2 in 2005.

Perhaps that’s just as well. It’s doubtful that Emmet would recognize much of his handiwork in the 2011 Blue Course. Ross was the first to touch up the original layout, shortly after its opening. Robert Trent Jones engineered a major redesign in the late 1950’s, and over the years since a handful of other architects have had their hand in keeping the Blue course current with the times. Since the last Open at Congressional in 1997 the club membership authorized a major change with the decision to tear up the Blue Course’s par-3 18th hole and replace it with a par-3 going the opposite way over the lake fronting the club’s grand clubhouse. That new hole is now the 10th. With the resultant renumbering of the rest of the back nine, the old 17th is now the finishing hole, a downhill par-4 to a green set on a lonely finger of land jutting out into a lake.

Early Sunday evening, one of the 156 entrants in this year’s U.S. Open will peer down the sloping fairway of what is now the 18th, knowing that he is within a few minutes, a well-struck approach, and a nervy putt or two, of becoming a U.S. Open champion. In that moment the green that he will stare at will likely be sun-baked to brown, it’s surface as hard and slick as bathtub tile. In his mind’s eye the putting surface may seem no more than a sliver, set hard by bunkers suddenly appearing massive on the right and surrounded by run-off areas shaved to the nub, with the lake likely looking more like an ocean to the left and rear.

The Blue Course’s 18th, stretched to 523 yards by the USGA, will surely test all of this week’s competitors and none more so than the one who stands in its fairway with a chance at the ultimate prize. But the par-4 18th will not be the only site of golfing drama at this year’s U.S. Open.

The four par-3’s, two on each side, will offer a stern test of a player’s accuracy off the tee. These four holes are set out two each in opposite directions of the compass, meaning that if two play downwind then two will be into the breeze. Three of the four are uphill shots of varying degrees, with a slick slope fronting the putting surface. Any shot hit just short will likely roll back down the fairway, lengthening a player’s subsequent chip shot with each sickening reverse revolution of the ball. The 10th green, the only par-3 that is downhill off the tee, is fronted by water. A short tee shot on this hole will meet a fate far worse than rolling back down a fairway.

More important, all four greens are sloping and multi-tiered. The task for the Open contestants will not be to simply find the green off the tee, but rather to find the right section of the green to give oneself a shot at birdie. On all four par-3’s landing on the wrong tier or wrong side of the putting surface will leave a far too adventurous go at a two-putt par.

At the other end of length, two of the course’s three par-5’s will likely dole out equal shares of joy and heartache. Both the 6th and 16th holes, at 555 and 579 yards, will tempt those who can find the narrow fairways with their downhill drives to go for the green in two. For those who can find the putting surface with their second shot, a chance at eagle will be the just reward. But those who cannot will likely pay a heavy price and each player in turn will have to decide if the potential payoff is worth the risk.

To the immediate right and front of the 6th green is a small pond, ready to swallow any stray or short approach. To the green’s left are two bunkers, and behind the closely mown grass falls away to a collection area well below the level of the putting surface. There will be eagles on the 6th, but there will also be double-bogies.

As there will be on the 16th. Here the challenge is not water, but rather a small elevated green that is designed to accept short lofted shots from pitching wedges, not speedy approaches hit from hybrids. The 16th green has four bunkers to the right and one to the left framing a narrow fairway approach. Again, the tightly cut land on both sides and to the rear falls sharply away, with out-of-bounds lurking dangerously close on the left. Any shot that does not hold the green will bring with it the potential for a big number.

These are the challenges that the players will face over the next four days. The consensus, and my sense from walking the course since Monday, is that the front nine is the gentler of the two halves. Anyone who tees off on #1 and fails to make the turn under par is likely headed for an unhappy result.

Par, of course, is the USGA’s obsession. Every year the course setup for the U.S. Open seems predicated on the notion that no one should be able to break it. This year USGA officials have publicly fretted over the recent weather in the D.C. area, where it has been hot and dry. That’s meant that even though the rough hasn’t been mowed for a week, it hasn’t grown as high as the USGA would like. It’s also meant that Congressional’s greens, newly redone less than two years ago, haven’t been able to be rolled down to the speedy slickness that the USGA desires, for fear of stressing and killing the young grass.

The USGA’s fixation on par is overblown. Even the men in the blue jackets can’t control the weather, as much as they might like it to be otherwise. Whether the final winning score is plus-2 or minus-10, Congressional’s Blue Course is a classic, rolling, tree-lined American golf course. It is the place where in just a few days a golfer will stand on the 18th, peering down at his place in the game’s history. The Blue is ready for its close-up. All that remains to be determined is whether in that singular moment in sports, that golfer will be equally ready for his.

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