Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 29, 2014

Congressional Bares Its Teeth And Restores Its Reputation

The USGA sponsors nearly a dozen national championship tournaments for individual golfers every year, as well as a handful of team events. At the end of each there is an awards presentation, and whether it’s the U.S. Open or the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur these ceremonies adhere to a similar script. In addition to passing out trophies a USGA official in a blue sport coat lavishes glowing praise on the tournament venue and assures everyone listening that the Association can’t wait to return with another one of its championships.

I’ve stood in the final fairway and listened to these paeans to various links, from Opens at Winged Foot in 2006, Bethpage in 2009, and Congressional in 2011, to the Amateur at the Country Club last summer. The songs are all the same until they’re not; and on that list the closing ceremony on the 18th green of Congressional’s Blue Course three summers ago stands out like a badly tuned instrument in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Rory McIlroy won his first major title on that Sunday afternoon, setting eleven tournament records in the process, including the lowest 72-hole score of 268, and the lowest finish in relation to par at 16-under. But while McIlroy dominated the field, finishing eight strokes clear of runner-up Jason Day, what clearly irked the men in the blue blazers was that he was by no means the only competitor to dominate the golf course. Twenty players finished the 2011 Open in red numbers, and given the USGA’s devotion to par as a virtually sacred number, that was a result that put frowns on a lot of faces. Praise for Congressional Country Club at that closing ceremony was both faint and forced, and there was noticeably no promise of the USGA returning to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

What the USGA chose to overlook in the midst of their rancor was that for all the planning and preparation that goes into any tournament, and especially a major, golf is still played outdoors in a setting where Mother Nature can have the final say. In 2011 metropolitan Washington was hit by a twin dose of weather events that reduced the best laid plans of the tournament organizers to rubble. First the area suffered through an unusually dry winter and early spring. This thwarted efforts to grow the thick and gnarly six-inch rough that at the time was a staple of every U.S. Open. Then immediately before the tournament, running even into the practice rounds, the weather pattern reversed itself and the course was suddenly deluged with rain. The precipitation arrived too late to grow the desire long grass, but in plenty of time to turn the Blue Course’s newly rebuilt greens into soft and receptive landing areas instead of the slick, concrete-like surfaces the USGA would have preferred.

The predictable result was that 21 golfers broke par in the opening round, led by McIlroy’s 6-under par 65. The number under par shrank slightly after round two, but then grew again over the course of the weekend, to a level that was decidedly unsightly in the eyes of the USGA. But blaming either the course or anyone associated with the club for onslaught of low scores was a classic case of blaming the weatherman for the weather. The USGA would have been wiser to look at Congressional’s history. In hosting the 1964 and 1997 Opens and the 1976 PGA Championship, the course surrendered a total of just four finishing scores under par. Those four golfers, Ken Venturi in 1964, and Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman in 1997 (no one finished under par at the ’76 PGA) were a combined 11-under par, or five shots behind McIlroy’s result.

Outside of Congressional’s majors and the first four American editions of the Presidents Cup matches which were played 45 minutes west on I-66, professional golf in the D.C. area for years revolved around an early summer tournament with shifting names and changing venues. The Kemper Open became the FBR Capital Open which became the Booz Allen Classic. First played in 1968 in Massachusetts, the Kemper wandered the East Coast before arriving at Congressional in 1980. But a few years later the venue shifted a short distance to the Tour-operated TPC at Avenel course. Between a poorly designed layout that the pros detested and a spot on the schedule right after the U.S. Open, the tournament was a minor stop on the Tour’s calendar, whatever its name. It was somehow fitting that the final Booz Allen in 2006 ended two days late thanks to persistent storms, with nary a television camera in sight.

Then came the announcement in 2007 that D.C.’s spot on the PGA Tour schedule was being given to a new tournament sponsored by AT&T. More significantly, the tournament was to benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation and the most famous golfer of all time became the official tournament host. In addition, except for 2010 and 2011 as Congressional prepared for and then hosted the Open, the Blue Course has been the event’s venue, largely at the insistence of Woods.

This year sponsorship shifted to Quicken Loans, and the long-range future of the event is uncertain. While still the most popular golfer on the planet and a guaranteed draw, Woods isn’t getting any younger. Meanwhile the Congressional membership, never wildly enthusiastic about surrendering their prime course for a part of every golfing season, has agreed to host the tournament only every other year through 2020.

But for now despite a less than prime spot on the golfing calendar, the PGA Tour’s stop in the D.C. area draws a decent field and is played at an outstanding venue. That was especially true this year, when they scheduled a weekly Tour event and a U.S. Open broke out. Greg Chalmers opened with a 5-under 66. Had he played even par the rest of the way he would have won. But that was his only sub-par round and Chalmers finished well down the leader board.

By Sunday the pros were flailing their way around Congressional, with red numbers increasingly hard to find. Patrick Reed, the third round leader, needed 77 strokes to navigate the final 18. His wild up and down round didn’t include a par in the first six holes, but somehow he still shared the lead at that point. Reed’s closest challenger at the start of the final round, Seung-Yul Noh, had an even tougher day, finishing with a 79.

In the end the winner was 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, whose closing 70 was one of just five rounds under par on Sunday. With two dramatic putts, one to save par on 17 and the second to save bogey on 18, Rose fought his way into a playoff with Shawn Stefani, both at 4-under par. When Stefani’s second on the first playoff hole found the water, the 33-year old Englishman was headed for his sixth PGA Tour win.

Those wins have come at Muirfield Village, Aronimink, Cog Hill, Doral, Merion, and now Congressional. Six victories by Rose at six classic and hard American golf courses. Sunday produced a winner who knows how to play his best on the very best links. It also produced a triumph for one of those courses, its reputation fully restored three years after Mother Nature and the USGA sought to do it in.

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