Let’s be frank: Anyone who wants to win the U.S. Open on the 18th hole at Congressional this week better be comfortable with long-distance travel. You practically have to tee the ball up in Virginia and hit it to Maryland. The 18th is less a golf hole than a parkway, leading to a little peninsula of a green about as welcoming as a tollbooth, where — trust me — a price will be paid.
Congressional is a big sprawling golf course with a big history, and if the USGA has done its job right, it will have a big, glamorous closing hole, the site of a splashy and dramatic and defining moment. Something on the order of Ben Hogan’s 1-iron to the 18th hole at Merion in 1950, or Corey Pavin’s soaring 4-wood into the 18th green at Shinnecock in 1995, if you please. At least, that’s the intention behind placing the tee box at the outermost boundary of Congressional property, up against the back fence. The hope is that the combination of length and importance of the occasion will make for “the epitome of a great golf hole,” as Phil Mickelson predicts.
Let’s set the stage: It’s Sunday, the final round, and all that’s hanging in the balance is the 2011 U.S. Open title. The contenders step up to the tee, wiping the sweat from their palms, and this is what they face: a daunting par-4 of 523 yards, with a forbiddingly steep downhill approach to a distant green framed by water on three sides, and densely wooded hills forming a natural amphitheater. The tee is set so far back, the only thing behind the players is the hum of traffic from Persimmon Tree Road — which given the moment will not exactly sound like a lullaby.
The 1997 Open championship was both won and lost on the hole, which back then was the 480-yard 17th, instead of the 18th. It played as the third-toughest hole on the entire course, with a 4.41 stroke average, and it decided the fates of both Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman, and consolidated the lead of eventual winner Ernie Els. Lehman, remember, was trailing by just a stroke when he hit a too-ambitious 7-iron that bounced left of the pin and rolled into the dank water. Meantime Montgomerie, the co-leader, bogeyed the hole for the fourth straight day when he allowed commotion in the gallery to undo him and missed a six-foot putt. Els on the other hand made a steady par that resulted in his second U.S. Open title.
But in the intervening years, long hitters and equipment technology caught up to the place. When USGA executive director Mike Davis came to see how the course played during the AT&T National a couple of years ago, he was appalled to see how the big hitters had reduced the 18th to a routine par 4, how diminutive it seemed. Players were busting drives and then flipping little wedges on the island green.
“It’s one of the great finishing holes in all of golf,” Davis says. “I said, ‘There’s no way we want to see wedges into that hole for the U.S. Open.’ ”
When he looked for a new tee box location, he started pacing backward, and kept on going.
By refashioning the 18th into such a long par 4, the USGA hopes to force players to make some risk and reward decisions again. But mainly, it hopes to reemphasize execution under pressure.
“It’s just a very well-thought-out, well-designed golf hole, I think one of the best that we play,” Mickelson says.
Davis wanted the hole to be long enough that there would be no choice but to hit the biggest club in the bag off the tee — and you better hit it straight.
“If you hit it in the rough, you’re really going to struggle,” Dustin Johnson says. “If you hit it in the rough, you’re just trying to get it down to the front.”
But the big-throated fairway also offers some hope for recovery with a big gambling second shot, “where you can chase one and try to get it up and down from 50 or 60 feet,” Mickelson says.
Even a good drive in the fairway could find some trouble, however.
The landing area slants to the left, and it feeds down to a sidehill lie, which can set you up for a hooked iron into the water — like Lehman’s.
The view from the fairway is knee-bending, of a hill that pitches sharply down toward the green and looks better for sledding than for golf.
The hole bends faintly left to reveal that isthmus, surrounded by a brown lake on three sides, where the pin sits. Its neatly edged banks have been shaved smooth, and are pockmarked on the right side by a set of shallow white bunkers. Now comes the long-iron second shot, of about 210-230 yards, and with it a moment of decision: How aggressively to go at the green?
Most players, depending on conditions, will have anything from a 4-iron to a 7-iron for their approach.
“We wanted to put a mid to long iron in their hands, and to make that second shot something they really have to think about,” Davis said.
The green sits at an angle, which could bait some players into an overly aggressive shot that winds up in the moat. Things could get splashy. On the other hand, it may also invite excessive caution. Laying up short, playing too timidly, could make for a very difficult par, especially if the pin is set back left, as it is likely to be Sunday, with a long ridge to deal with.
After all of that, Davis and the USGA hope the bottom line is, “If you execute properly, you’re rewarded.”