Congressional has U.S. Open appeal for the future, says USGA’s executive director

Congressional Country Club’s third U.S. Open is complete, and given the winning score — a record 16-under-par total of 268 by Rory McIlroy — there could be concern that the third time would be the Bethesda club’s last. The United States Golf Association is famous for trying to protect par, and Congressional’s Blue Course — subjected to softening thunderstorms several nights last week — simply couldn’t do it.

But move out 15 years, and consider the following scenario: It is 2026, the United States is celebrating its 250th birthday, and the USGA brings the U.S. Open back to the nation’s capital.

“There’s such an appeal to that point,” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said. “First of all, to get to the middle Atlantic, to get to the nation’s capital, infrastructure-wise, it works. There’s lots of land. It’s great to do an event. It’s good for spectators. The golf course certainly is a great test, and so there’s no reason we wouldn’t come back.”

The process of making such a determination, though, is a long one. The U.S. Open sites are determined through 2019; the 2018 event was awarded to Shinnecock Hills on Long Island last week. Typically, interested clubs would send a letter to the USGA 10 to 12 years prior to the year in which they desired the tournament. The USGA staff then conducts what amounts to an interrogation — one that could be less in Congressional’s case, given the club has pulled off two Opens since 1997. The tournament then would be awarded seven or eight years in advance.

“But in the preliminary discussions,” said Ben Brundred, the co-chairman of Congressional’s 2011 Open committee, “the concept of here, 250th anniversary, the U.S. Open — it seems to make sense to a lot of people.”

Both the USGA and Congressional defended the golf course as well, even as McIlroy shredded it, setting records for most strokes under par and lowest total score. Before McIlroy arrived here, no one had ever been more than 12 under in a U.S. Open. Twenty players finished under par; only Medinah, in 1990, produced more, with 28.

The reason, the USGA believes: Rain.

“I would say the only downer really has been that the golf course, we’ve had so much rain, we never got it firm,” Davis said. “That’s a downer. It doesn’t matter what golf course — Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills, Pinehurst — this would happen. So the players didn’t really get to see the true Congressional, because it makes you think. There’s much more strategy when you get it firmer and faster.”

The U.S. Open, though, is always played on Father’s Day weekend, in June, when it is hardly unusual for Washington to receive rain. Still, Davis said Congressional would “absolutely” be considered for another Open, “if we’re invited.”

“The score means nothing,” Davis said. “The winning score right now could be even par if it was firm and fast. It wouldn’t be anything that the club did. It wouldn’t be that we did. It would be everything that Mother Nature did.”

Though the course received some criticism from players over the weekend — defending champion Graeme McDowell said he was “disappointed” it was so soft — most seemed to understand that the USGA never got the course it truly wanted. Asked if Congressional was worthy of holding the Open, Phil Mickelson said immediately: “Oh, yes.”

“I think the great thing about this tournament course and the setup is that the best player this week is going to win,” Mickelson said.

Congressional had hosted only two Opens before — in 1964, when Ken Venturi, one of the most talented players of his generation, took the trophy; and in 1997, when Ernie Els, en route to the world’s top ranking, beat two of the other elite players of the time, Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman. Those are the kinds of champions the USGA wants, because it feels the Open should select the best player, and McIlroy — with the talent to be a star for the next two decades — fits right in.

Both Davis and players pointed out, too, that McIlroy’s winning score was an outlier in the field. He beat runner-up Jason Day by eight shots. Rees Jones, one of the architects whose touches are all over the Blue Course, asked Brundred on Saturday if the club would have concerns if the winning score was, say, 17 under.

“My response to him was, ‘If the winning score were going to be 17 under and we had a three-way tie for 16 under and then right down the list, then yeah, sure,’” Brundred said. “But this situation’s entirely different.”

Thus, Congressional won’t be among the USGA’s most frequently used sites — a distinction reserved for courses such as Oakmont, Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. But despite the number of birdies during the week, both sides have some interest in at least continuing the discussion.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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