From the Golf Journal Archives - Pol’s Playground

Apr 29, 2011

The political clout wielded by Congressional members aside, the real club history includes a massive D.C. traffic tieup, a combat zone and one of golf’s most sensational finishes.

By John Stewart

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

GIVEN THE NAME, Congressional Country Club, it seems reasonable to think of it as a playground for highly placed elected government officials. Some might say that’s what Congress is anyway.

For most golf fans, though, the mere mention of Congressional brings to mind the memory of Ken Venturi staggering to victory in the heat and humidity of the 1964 Open.

Once beyond that, though, how much is known of the club in the Maryland countryside of suburban Washington, D.C.? Certainly it has a place in golf history for other reasons, having hosted the 1959 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 1976 PGA Championship and seven Kemper Opens beginning in 1980.

The official story line for Congressional says it was the creation of two U.S. representatives from Indiana, Oscar Bland and O.R. Luhring, in the early 1920s. Originally planned as the “Playground of Officialdom,” the Congressmen thought the need for such a club existed. There, politicians and professional businessmen could get together for social pleasures.

Unofficially, it is a fact that the “cliffdwellers” (those old-time, old-line Washingtonians) who belonged to high-profile clubs in the area refused to let the politicians and others play their courses. So they decided to go into the country and form their own club.

A suitable tract of land was located in Montgomery County, and the purchase of 406 acres negotiated. As the organization of the club took shape, an initiation fee of $250 was set for active dues-paying members. At a meeting in February 1922, Herbert Hoover was elected president (of the club, not the country).

Hoover, who was Secretary of Commerce at the time, got several big industrialists to kick in $1,000 apiece in exchange for a life membership. Hence the impressive list of life members, a group that included presidents William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and, later, Calvin Coolidge. Then there are more recognizable names: Firestone, Rockefeller, Hearst, Du Pont and Mellon.

Nearly 75 years later, the club secures a slightly higher initiation fee, and it is far more family oriented than the club conceived by its founders.

ON THE EVENING OF May 23, 1924, President and Mrs. Coolidge attended a reception to signal the opening of the massive multi-level clubhouse. Newspaper accounts called it the worst traffic jam in D.C. since the burial of the Unknown Soldier. There was only one road running between the club and the District of Columbia. Attendance at the reception was placed between 7,500 and 10,000.

During the reception, the Coolidges retired for dinner in the Presidential Suite, one that was to be kept in readiness for presidential occupancy. As it turned out, such visitations did not occur, and by 1930 it was being rented out for $25 a night. More recently, it was used as a tournament office.

The course, designed by Devereux Emmett, who was hired at the fee of $150 a month, had been open about a year at the time of the reception. The next day there was an exhibition with former Open champions Gene Sarazen and Fred McLeod, plus Max Marston and James Crabbe, Congressional’s first head professional.

During one of the club’s down times, when it appeared headed for bankruptcy, World War II intervened. The federal government saved the club by renting it for use by the Office of Strategic Services. From golf and fancy dinners to parachute jumping, espionage and sabotage, it became a training ground complete with foxholes, tanks and other trappings of war.

During the war, John Swanson, a carpenter and the club’s chief handyman, was the only staff member to stay, reportedly because he was the one with the only complete set of keys to the place.

At the end of the hostilities, Wiffy Cox, the club’s pre-war head pro who had been at a New York club during the war, returned to supervise the restoration from a military training ground. In this work he was aided by, among others, two former staff members, Jocko Miller and Warner Gray.

It is safe to say that of all the professionals who have worked at Congressional over the years, none is better remembered than Miller, the club’s Director of Golf Play for more than 30 years. In the process, he built a superb caddie program and ruled the first tee as starter, maintaining a firm control the membership fondly recalls to this day.

The course reopened for play on May 1, 1946, but soon there was agitation for another nine. The idea had been discussed as far back as 1932, but little was done about it. By 1955, the membership agreed to the expansion and Robert Trent Jones was brought in as the architect. With the completed holes serving as the back nine of what is the championship course, Jones later was brought back to modernize the front. That enabled the club to invite and secure the ‘64 Open.

By the early 1970s, when play had become quite heavy, the club purchased 85 acres (members passed the motion to buy by one vote) and brought in architects George and Tom Fazio. They incorporated a new nine into the original nine not used in the championship layout, thus giving Congressional 36 holes.

A stabilizing force after the wax was club manager Lon Martin, who served from 1948 to 1976. Martin and his family lived on the third floor at the club. His daughter, Barbara Martin Naef, has fond memories of growing up in those surroundings. “I had a small upstairs room and ate downstairs,” she recalls. “As a little girl, I wandered the golf course and remember some of those World War II relics. It was an interesting experience because there was lots to put back together.

“The golf course was my place – fishing, walking, sledding – and I had a chance to see a lot of famous people. Seeing President Eisenhower, for instance, was the most exciting time for a teenager, and dad kept one of his score cards.”

Referring to the personalities who had occasion to play there, she added, “It gave me a wonderful perspective on people, from the wealthy to the ones who worked for dad. Regardless of their financial status, they were wonderful people. I wouldn’t trade those years.”

OF ALL THE ROUNDS PLAYED OVER THE YEARS at Congressional, club members cite one they consider to be unique. That’s the one back in the early ‘70s when member Bob Chandler played the last five holes, against a par of 4-5-4-4-3, in an unthinkable 5-4-3-2-1.

Chandler, now 80, admits his memory isn’t what it used to be when he was an insurance agent and carried a handicap of 5 or 6. “The golf course I played,” he recalls, “isn’t the one they’ll play in the Open. The holes are about the same, but then it was not all that long and the fairways were different because they were made to play faster.

“At the 17th, I hit driver and a 7- or 8-iron. Now it would be driver and 4-iron. The shot at 18 was a surprise because my friends called that pond in front of it ‘Chandler's Cove,’ referring to the number of times I hit a ball into it.”

There is one last Congressional memory for those on the Open’s cutting edge. At the 1976 PGA Championship, a club pro from Hawaii shot 88-87. He said of his second round, “The course played easier.”

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.

The clubhouse has had a commanding presence from the start. (USGA Museum)

Many of the nation’s political movers and shakers have welcomed in the new year at Congressional. (USGA Museum)