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Singing the Congressional Blues - U.S. Open Preview
Once upon a time, just saying the name Congressional was enough to make pro golfers tremble. People still blanch when they recall brave old Ken Venturi staggering up the 18th fairway on the last Saturday finish in U.S. Open history, seemingly one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.
"They opened up a coffin and out he crawled," quintessential golf writer Dan Jenkins quipped at the time, and he was right. After three hard-luck losses at the Masters, Venturi's career had reputedly been dead for years. But displaying the fortitude of a gladiator, Venturi gave the sports world a bravura performance that echoes through time as one of the U.S. Open's most indelible, iconic moments. Dazed by dehydration and 100-degree heat (and accidentally poisoning himself with too many salt tablets), a semiconscious Venturi fired a sizzling 66-70 to win his only major championship.
As he sat down for his post-tournament interview with the press, the affable Venturi couldn't help cracking a joke: "The last time I saw you guys, you were interviewing me at the  Masters, then somebody yelled, 'Palmer!' and you all ran out of the room and left me with my Coke."
But now 47 years later, we see a different Congressional altogether. At the 2009 AT&T National, the Blue Course was all but a pushover. Hunter Mahan closed with a 62 to nearly steal the tournament, losing by a stroke to Tiger Woods, who opened with a 64 and finished at 13-under. The 62 and 13-under scores would constitute, respectively, a major championship single-round record and a U.S. Open record relative-to-par. Heck, even obscure pro Bryce Molder opened with 64.
Those scores have no business in a U.S. Open, however. From the outset, let's be clear: there is a reason why Oakmont, Winged Foot and Oakland Hills have hosted more then twice the number of major championships as Congressional. With the statistical outlier of Johnny Miller in 1973 aside, they don't hand out low scores like they were Halloween candy.
The winning aggregate score at the three major championships contested at Congressional were 278 (Ken Venturi at the 1964 U.S. Open), 281 (Dave Stockton at the 1976 PGA) and 276 (Ernie Els at the 1997 U.S. Open). By contrast, the aggregate winning score at the most recent majors contested at both Winged Foot (2006 U.S. Open) and Oakmont (2007 U.S. Open) was 285.
One difference is the greens. Winged Foot, Oakmont and Oakland Hills are three of the greatest courses in the world - and great major championship venues - because the difficult green contours test the putting skill of the golfer, as it should be anytime, but especially in a major championship. The adventure doesn't end upon reaching the putting surface, and two-putts are anything but a formality.
The second reason is the terrain. All three of those ancient golf splendors feature cunning fairway undulations and uneven lies that call for the player to shape his shot. Moreover, the holes are routed to play into the teeth of the most severe elevation changes in the property. They are a deep and broad examination of every facet of the player's game as well as his intellect and patience.
"To me Winged Foot and Oakmont are tied for first place as the best major championship venues, with Oakland Hills a fraction behind: No. 1 and No. 1A," said Jay Haas in an interview with this author last year, and he's right.
Congressional, on the other hand, has undergone a restoration from Rees Jones, which in this case is part of the dilemma. Despite what television commentators will tell you on the broadcast, Jones's name on a restoration is greeted with mixed reviews and with good reason. Sometimes he hits a tape-measure blast into the upper deck to rousing applause (Bethpage, which went from the outhouse to the penthouse) and sometimes he grounds out to the pitcher (Torrey Pines, where Californians grumble that for $3.2 million he just made the course harder). Having the "Open Doctor" do his "Rees-storations" is like voting for president: you have to hold your nose, pull the lever and hope for the best. Sometimes you get Ronald Reagan and sometimes you get Jimmy Carter.
In the case of Congressional, Rees's work gets mixed reviews from this author. I know that for every major championship it's polite and politically correct to genuflect on the greatness of the venue and the architect, but I do no one any good if, from time to time, I don't issue a truthful analysis in the form of a minority report and Congressional too often relies on penal architecture and unbelievable length for its defense. It is comparatively rudimentary in the golf tests it poses to the players. Hit it long, hit it straight - double-target golf - and don't expect options or strategy.
Moreover, Rees's changes homogenized the golf course. He erased some of the most compelling terrain of the property, smoothing the fairways on several holes to prevent uneven lies and bulldozing some hills altogether to eliminate blind shots.
As an aside, I've never understood this. This is the National Open, America's Golf Championship, supposedly the year's Final Examination in Golf for the best players in the world, shot-making wizards of incomparable skills. We'll test a 280-yard par-3 to a green surrounded by bunkers, but not a 170 yard 8-iron from a hanging lie? If you're really trying to "identify" the best player in the world, should he not be able to handle the same type of shot every weekend golfer faces at their home course? Uneven lies are part of golf and they should not be erased at the game's highest competitive level.
Moreover, what's wrong with the occasional blind shot? Again, it would pose a difficult but certainly not unfair golf problem for the competitor. You want drama and excitement? The fear of the unknown is what makes the pros guys shake in their boots. They despise blind shots because it's harder to visualize the shot they wish to make. They have to trust their line and swing and that's when doubts creep in. As we all know, doubt is fatal to golf shots, but it makes for a compelling tournament.
Finally, Congressional's greens will Stimp at a ludicrous 14-14.5. Thank goodness the rain and humidity have kept conditions a little softer or they'd be harder than a Ping Pong table.
Now for the good news: Rees left some of the good green contours intact. We said earlier that Congressional is not Oakland Hills, Oakmont or Winged Foot. Well it is also not Torrey Pines, Medinah or Hazeltine National: the greens are not entirely flat or uninteresting. Sure, Rees put in a few of his trademark folds in the green to further segment them into smaller targets. But he showed remarkable restraint in not erasing some of the original contours, and Congressional does feature several humps and hollows that will make the greens tough two-putts should the approach be on the business-end side of any swale or on the wrong tier. Moreover, the greens are not overly large, so approaches must be precise, because getting up and down will be a chore.
Most importantly, Rees solved one of the routing problems the course faced since its inception. The original architect, Devereux Emmet, routed the Blue Course so as to end on a par-3. While several fine courses end on a par-3 - most notably fabled Garden City Golf Club, which annually hosts one of the biggest tournaments in amateur golf, the 101 year-old Travis Invitational, as well as PGA Tour stop Old White at the Greenbriar, ending on a par-3 is a problem at a major because coming down the stretch on Sunday there is a great amount of hullabaloo too close to the 17th green.
"It was a distraction all week, but especially on Sunday" groused surly, old Colin Montgomerie as he lamented his near-miss at the 1997 U.S. Open.
We could have a lively debate about whether or not the USGA could make a par-3 finisher work, but for Congressional's purposes they needed a solution and Rees gave them a good one. Jones simply reversed the par-3 finisher and made it the 10th hole. It fits the golf course well, playing over the lake to a wide, but narrow green with a particularly interesting depression/bowl in the front right. It also re-sequences the holes so that the course ends at what was formerly No. 17, now a long par-4 ending at the course's famous peninsula green set in the lake.
And so Rees rides off into the sunset, ostensibly to re-work PGA Championship venues as "The PGA Physician" or whatever label the P.R. dingbats will dream up (that's what P.R. dingbats do…). While he was never a champion of strategic design principles, always leaning toward the penal school of architecture, he's had quite a run in the professional ranks as a renovator of courses, much like his father before him. New Yorkers in particular cheer Rees fervently because he not only rescued Bethpage Black from the scrapbook of history, but gave New York public golfers a major championship venue they can call their own. The miraculous resurrection and ascension of Bethpage Black made him an eternal hero to New York sports fans, and rightfully so. That alone may be Rees's greatest contribution to golf course architecture.
Moreover, like his father before him, he is a success with the Tour players and tournament officials because he gives them what they want. When that happens you get penal architecture - players can't be bothered to think. Doubt creeps in, they swing uncertainly and the ball makes a beeline for the nearest hazard. So a few green contours aside, there's no funky jazz at Congressional to mess with the players' heads. They've seen this course before, and that means this Open is wide open.
The Crucial Holes
Nationally respected golf course architecture expert Matt Ward wrote about Congressional, "Credit Mike Davis for changing the [555-yard] 6th to a par-5 because as a long par-4 it was a horrible hole. The intrusive nature of the pond meant a far more difficult avenue for players to handle. The rest of the course is a narrow corridor-filled tree-fest. Few of the greens are really interesting and the course lacks any real finesse holes of outstanding nature . . . When you have an event in the D.C. area, politics is the guiding role and having a facility of such immense size and stature is the real dominant ingredient for going there."
That's a good summation. Congressional will play at a maximum length of 7,568 yards and a par of 71, with seven of the 10 par-4s playing over 460 yards, including all five on the back nine. Generally speaking, players will try to make a move on the front and then hold on for dear life on the back. Still, there are many holes that should provide some compelling swings in momentum as the week progresses.
While the first hole, a short par-4 may offer up a shot at an opening birdie, the difficult par-3 second may grab that stroke right back. Not only is it 233 yards, but the green slopes severely from left to right and is bisected by a long ridge. Players who miss left will face a 20- to 30-yard pitch to a green sloping away from them and Stimping at 14.5. As author Ian Fleming wrote in "Goldfinger," "It's always too early to start losing."
Six and eight present the best birdie opportunities on the front nine. While six is reachable in two, misses right are wet - due to either the stream guarding the right side of the fairway or the pond short and right of the green. At 354 yards, the par-4 eighth is a drive-and-a-pitch par-4. Mike Davis resisted the urge to move up the tees and give the players a go at driving the green since he might not have many takers. The green is encircled by sand and a stand of trees will swallow misses right.
The 494-yard 11th is a bowling alley, not a golf hole. An already criminally narrow fairway is tougher to hit because it slopes severely left to right - towards the stream which guards its entire right side before ending at the pond guarding the right side of the green. Four bunkers guard the left side of a shiver looking for a spine to run up. Even Tiger Woods played this minefield 5-over for the week when he won the 2009 AT&T National.
The 193-yard par-3 13th may be the best green on the course. Two plateaus on either side flank a third, lower tier. These levels make the green a much smaller target, especially if a player wants to have a go at the pin.
No. 17 features one of Davis's clever little twists, but this time it may not tempt the players as much as he hopes. The fairway at this 437 yard par-4 is bisected by rough starting at the 150-yard marker. However, Davis ordered a slender trough of the rough cut to fairway level to connect the two sections of fairway. Calling it a "speed slot," he hopes a player might be tempted to try to drive into this chute, which slopes severely downhill, and leave the successful player a mere pitch to the green.
"I don't see many players trying it though," said writer and analyst Ryan Ballengee of NBC Sports. "If they are unsuccessful, the best they could hope for is a tough downhill lie out of the rough to a narrow green guarded by five bunkers. The reward may not be enough to overcome the risk."
Finally, the 523-yard finisher has been designated as a par-4 for the tournament. Back in 1997 when it was a par-5, only Ernie Els made a conservative par at the hole on Sunday. By contrast, each of his pursuers took bogey six or worse, including Colin Montgomerie, Tom Lehman and Jeff Maggert.
Congressional gets tougher as the round progresses and the crucible heat of the competition will be further augmented by the severe June temperatures and humidity of Washington summers. Like the Congressional Opens of the past, it will be a long, hot grind. Yet also like the Congressional Opens of the past, players will have a chance to go out and win this U.S. Open by making some birdies, rather than tip-toeing around trying to make the least bogeys.
Handicapping the Field
Trying to predict the winner this week is like trying to find a virgin in a maternity ward. It's a year of flux for the Tour. The "Tiger Age" has ended and, over the next few years, many players will vie for the brass ring he left behind.
It's a large crop, and tightly bunched, with no clear favorite. Right now, Europeans leading the world golf rankings but American should have an edge at Congressional. The course is familiar to them. Normally, the pros visit the venues for the rotating American majors every dozen years or so. Congressional, on the other hand, has had several stints as a regular Tour stop. So where most major venues are somewhat mysterious to the players - materializing through the mists of history for one shining week in the sun before vanishing once again, dissolving like a mirage, a reverie, waiting to be recalled once again - Congressional will be familiar and comfortable.
In particular, Phil Mickelson's game is finally showing signs of rounding into shape. He played well on the weekend at Muirfield Village, and he always finds a fifth gear for the U.S. Open. Congressional rewards players with length, accuracy and a solid short game. If Phil is near the top of the field in Greens in Regulation, he could win.
Other Americans with a chance include phlegmatic and precise Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, two of the straightest and steadiest players on the Tour. Also consider the hot hand of David Toms, who has shown remarkable resurgence this spring. Young guns Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar should contend as well. Finally, shot-makers Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson and Ben Curtis should all find the course to their liking and contend.
Rory McIlroy is the most electric of the foreign players, he could lead the field in birdies, but he'll have to have a good week putting, which is where most of his past bids to win a major have gone south. While Martin Kaymer has cooled off since winning the Road to Dubai, he is still a major threat. Despite his highly-publicized public flame-outs, Rory Sabbatini can play well with seemingly everyone rooting against him. Wouldn't that be a story?
Y.E. Yang has cooled off since winning the 2009 PGA Championship, but anyone that can shrug off the pressure of being in contention for a major on their first try and catch Woods from three strokes behind on Sunday has the mettle to be a factor at a U.S. Open. Finally, his performance at Pebble Beach last year proves Els can still win a major, though his window of opportunity is slowly closing.
"Congo" is Wrong-O
Branding department? Clean up on Aisle 2!
The same lowest common denominator salesmen in the media who call Winged Foot "The Foot," have coined yet another glib and hackneyed nickname for a major championship venue: "Congo."
Luckily, such nicknames usually bomb. Can we please resist the temptation to call it "Congo?" Congo is a country located in central Africa - the Democratic Republic of Congo to be exact - but the 2011 U.S. Open is being played at the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club. If you want a short form name, call it "the Blue." "Congo" is wrong-o.
Did You Know?
When Venturi won the '64 Open, he earned $17,500. Runner-up Tommy Jacobs won $8,500.
Did You also Know?
When Venturi was paired with Paul Harney for a practice round the Tuesday before the tournament, Harney was surprised to see him, asking him why he wasn't at the White House.
Venturi shook his head, puzzled, asking what he meant. It seems President Lyndon Johnson was hosting a party on the White House lawn for past champions . . . and also the favorites that week . . . the "leading contenders" as it was put.
"No problem," Venturi later recalled. "I just used the rejection as a motivating factor. Thank you, President Johnson."
Did You Know? 3 in 3D
Even on Father's Day, dads will be dads. Shortly after the trophy presentation and media interviews, Venturi's parents telephoned him. His mom was crying so hard, she could barely talk. Venturi's dad was much more laconic…
"Now you've got to prove it was no fluke," he said.
Venturi's reply? "Typical dad!"
Bonjour Miss Bonsoliel Special thanks go out this week to the Incomparable Britt Bonsoliel, my Favorite Person and gracious hostess this week for the Open. There's nothing like home-cooking when you're on the road. How super-cool is Britt? For her, I'd drink expired milk, rest my elbows on a hot plate, walk through poison oak, and drop heavy furniture on my toes, though I hope I never have to - it would be hard to hug her wrapped up like an Egyptian pharaoh.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.