From the Golf Journal Archives - Congressional and the Open

Apr 22, 2011

By Frank Hannigan

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1964 issue of Golf Journal.)

Is there any phrase associated with golf more loosely applied than “championship course?” Nowadays it seems every resort with 125 spare acres can’t wait to put in a call to an architect, shove some earth around, plant some grass and – presto! – six months later we are all cordially invited to come on down to avail ourselves of the glories of this latest “championship course.”

The evolution of a course truly worthy of the appellation “championship” is apt to have less of a magic wand quality and more the substance of blood, sweat and tears. Take, for instance, the story of the course at the Congressional Country Club, Washington, D.C., where the Open Championship will take place next month.

Seven years elapsed between first considerations in 1955 and the eventual mutual agreement that Congressional would be host to the 64th Open. Two more years have passed in preparation for the event. The Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association knew all about Congressional because the club had been a splendid host to the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in 1949. Congressional’s clubhouse is enormous; parking facilities, both on and off the grounds, are more than ample; the membership was patently eager and talented; and Washington itself, with a sprawling urban population and proximity to other big cities, seemed likely to provide the support needed for an enterprise such as the Open.

There was only one missing ingredient – a suitable golf course.

Not that Congressional didn’t have a perfectly fine course in 1955. It was rather that the course was not extraordinary. Since the quality of the course must take highest priority in determination of an Open site, a hint was dropped that the USGA would be interested to hear again from Congressional if and when the course were revised.

Congressional, at about that time, was immersed in plans for the construction of a third nine holes. Robert Trent Jones, the eminent architect, was called in to design the new nine, which was opened for play during 1957. The club then invited and received the 1959 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. That event, a rousing success, is still considered a paragon for women’s events by the USGA.

When it was over, Congressional asked, “How about the Open now?”

“Well,” replied the USGA in effect, “you certainly do have nine wonderful holes now. Too bad about the other holes, isn’t it?”

Back to the drawing board went Robert Trent Jones. He emerged with a scheme to completely transform one of the original nines. This was accomplished in 1961. Once again Congressional sent forth feelers about the Open and once again the USGA Championship Committee went down to Washington to have a look.

The Committee was delighted with what it saw and, in the spring of 1962, it recommended that the 1964 Open take place at Congressional, provided certain steps were taken in course conditioning.

But still the matter of the layout was not settled. The 18 holes proposed for the Open ended with a 159-yard hole having quite a limited area for spectators. And so Congressional was asked to forget about that hole for the Open along with one other it had considered part of its championship sequence. They were to be replaced by two holes from the original course.

As part of the USGA plan, the finishing hole was to be a par 4 which Congressional members customarily play as their 17th – a wonderful finishing hole for both players and spectators, 465 yards down a chute into a peninsula green jutting out into a lake, with hillside vantage points for thousands of birdie-watchers.

Into the breach went architect Jones a final time, to touch up those two holes from the odd nine. The first of these, the par-3 16th for purposes of the Open, had its green reshaped and four bunkers added; the other, the par-4 17th at the Open, was strengthened by lengthening the tee some 40 yards and by the creation of bunkers in the drive zone.

So there you have it, a championship course, except for one commodity – the turf!

Turf Problems

Think of Washington as being one corner of a triangle whose other angles are formed at Philadelphia and St. Louis. Some agronomists refer to the land within that triangle as “the crabgrass belt.” A golf course superintendent in the belt labors under the disadvantage of a pestilential climate. High summer temperatures and humidity are detrimental to the welfare of the traditional cool-season grasses, i.e., bent, bluegrass and fescue. On the other hand, the courses in the belt are not far enough south to make bermudagrass a sure thing

Every club in the belt has to face the climate problem. Congressional’s answer was to strike out for bermudagrass fairways and bent greens. It is feasible to have first-class bent greens in Washington during the summer through intensive maintenance.

Congressional’s bermudagrass fairways were doing nicely when along came the winter of 1962-63, sure to go down in the annals of northeastern turfgrass maintenance as The Year of the Big Winterkill. You may recall the consternation at last year’s Open site, The Country Club at Brookline, Mass., because of winterkill. The same malady extended down to Washington, where it became evident last summer that the bermudagrass fairways were not going to come back soon enough nor strong enough to be of the quality expected at the Open.

Congressional thereupon went about overseeding all 27 of its fairways with bent grass. This happened in August. Before the seed was planted each fairway was aerated, or spiked, 10 times over. According to one member, “It looked like some wild man had plowed the whole place under.”

All this effort is likely to produce a happy ending. There is every reason to expect that the combination of grasses, bermudagrass and bent, will provide an excellent fairway turf come June. Incidentally, that intensive aeration may have loosened the soil to an extent that will minimize the roll of drives during the Open.

There remains the question of how the course will play. It is hard to convey in words the character of a fine golf course. Perhaps it is best to stick to the basics by saying that Congressional will be 7,053 yards long; that its par of 70 will be made up of 12 par-4, four par-3, and only two par-5 holes; and, like the lady spies in war movies, will appear both alluring and dangerous. Water hazards are certain to play a vital role. The water comes into play not at par-5 holes but rather around the greens of three long par-4 holes, the sixth, 10th and 18th. These three holes measure, in order, 456, 459 and 465 yards.

Most Open courses have at least one conversation piece, that hole which evokes the liveliest conversation on the part of players in their estimates of the course. Sometimes these estimates of the hole in question abound with colorful words such as “ridiculous,” “unplayable” and “monstrous.”

Much of this oratory can be attributed to what Tony Lema, in a recent magazine article, described as pre-Open tension “that shows in a shortness of breath, a lack of appetite, restless nights and an overpowering desire to drink yourself to sleep in the evening.” In any event, Congressional’s most likely nominee for the hole to be discussed in flamboyant terms is the par-5 ninth, 599 yards long.

The unusual factor in the ninth hole is a 40-foot deep ravine, or gully, directly in front of a small green. Since that ravine will be covered with rough four or five inches high, the players are likely to shun it. They will therefore have to “lay up” their second shots onto a landing area level with the green but 75 to 100 yards short of it. This landing area is 35 yards wide and at its end is flanked by trees on either side. If you happen to stray into the woods, your ball just might be unplayable.

The net effect is a legitimate three-shot hole. Each of these shots – the drive, the long iron up to the edge of the ravine, and the short iron onto the green – must be played accurately.

Congressional’s Background

Congressional, the club, as contrasted with Congressional, a golf course, has an equally interesting background. Two Representatives from Indiana in 1921 conceived the idea of a club where members of Congress could meet socially with business and professional men. Students of history will recall that the Harding administration was not exactly antipathetic toward the business community.

Opening night at Congressional, May 23, 1924, was a sparkling Washington social occasion. More than 7,000 people flocked into the new clubhouse, a mosaic of blue-gray stone, white marble aggregate and Italian red tile. President Calvin Coolidge ordered steak and French fried potatoes for his meal.

The original organizers, with then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover serving as Founders’ Club President, sold life memberships on a grand scale to prominent people throughout the country. Among the life members were the John D. Rockefellers, senior and junior, Vincent Astor, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Bernard Baruch, and Harry F. Sinclair. One of the founders wrote at the time: “On its roster you will find practically all Americans of prominence, socially and politically and in the realm of science and in the arts; there you will find the highest officers of the Army and the Navy, past and present Presidents of the United States, Cabinet officers, Senators and Congressmen.”

The roster of distinguished personages did not exempt Congressional from the ravages of the depression. The club struggled throughout the ‘30s, its financial problems compounded by the heavy upkeep needed to maintain its large plant. In 1940, it went into friendly bankruptcy. Life memberships were wiped out. A reorganization followed and Congressional was beginning to lift its head when World War II intervened. The club rented its property to the government and shut down for the duration.

During the latter half of the war the hush-hush OSS moved in. Men were trained in the subtle arts of espionage, sabotage and raids behind enemy lines on the very ground where Arnie’s Army will tread next month. Rentals received from the government enabled the club to solve many financial problems. When the club opened for business again in the spring of 1946 it was solvent.

Since the end of the war Congressional has become a prototype of the family country club. Government being the primary Washington industry, it is natural to find prominent government leaders, including 60 senators and representatives, listed among today’s members. No longer, however, is the club considered an extension of downtown offices. Members and their families now use Congressional’s wonderful facilities in the same way country clubs are enjoyed throughout contemporary American suburbia. The front-page faces come and go in relative anonymity.

The visitor who approaches Congressional for the first time, however, can’t avoid being startled at the sight of a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, clad in Bermuda shorts, chipping to a practice green. The visitor pictures a locker room in which a long black robe has been hung. Inside the clubhouse the visitor finds that Mr. Frank J. Murphy, Jr., the Open general chairman, has been laboring on an heroic scale for more than two years. His committee seemingly has left nothing to chance. Now it is up to the players.

The 2011 U.S. Open will be played at Congressional Country Club from June 16-19. For more information about the championship, visit the U.S. Open website.

Congressional Country Club, host to the 1964 Open Championship, as it appears today. Nine years of work and renovation went into the preparations, including construction of nine new holes and transformation of many others. The Open Championship holes are those numbered in the illustration. (USGA Museum)

The 599-yard, par-5 ninth at Congressional favors finesse over power. The ravine in front of the small green is 40 feet deep and is covered with high rough, discouraging attempts at getting home in two – even for the longest hitters. (USGA Museum)

A look at Congressional’s revised 211-yard, par-3 16th hole. Existing bunkers were expanded and three new ones added, narrowing the target for shots to the green. (UGSA Museum)