Those efforts were largely undone this past weekend, as what is traditionally golf’s most arduous event was turned into a relative breeze. Twenty players finished under par, a total exceeded just once in the 111-year history of the tournament. On Sunday, in the final round — when an Open course is supposed to be at its most difficult — 32 players broke par. The previous high for a final round was 18.
The low-scoring spree raised some questions about whether Congressional — which has also hosted the Open in 1964 and 1997 — should stage the tournament again.
“Is Congressional worthy?” asked two-time champion Curtis Strange on Monday. “Well, we certainly didn’t find out this week.”
The reason for Congressional’s easy play was largely explained by an unlikely combination of unfavorable weather — two early-season heat spells before the tournament followed by drenching evening rains during the event. The weather left the greens too soft and the rough too short — a combination that left the course vulnerable and exposed to professional golfers at the top of their game.
Not that golf fans were disappointed. Nearly 250,000 people turned out to watch at Congressional last week, and on Sunday 22-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland was crowned champion after a record-setting performance.
Indeed, officials said shortly after the event concluded that they saw no reason why the Open shouldn’t return to Congressional, perhaps in 2026, when the United States will be celebrating its 250th birthday. “The golf course certainly is a great test, and so there’s no reason we wouldn’t come back,” said Mike Davis, the United States Golf Association executive director.
Before that decision is made, however, USGA officials will take a measure of how Congressional stood up to the test in 2011, and whether the changes made to the course over the past two years worked.
So what happened?
The reasons lie in a confluence of agronomy, meteorology and strategy. Start, first, with the grass.
In July 2009, Congressional began replacing all the greens on its Blue Course, switching from one type of grass, poa annua, to another, bentgrass, that would hold up better in Washington’s long, hot summers. The move was made not specifically because the club was preparing to host the Open — indeed, it was a long-term decision about the health of the greens — but the USGA supported the decision.
Earlier this spring, officials from both the club and the USGA were pleased with how the greens were coming around. Enter, though, meteorology. In the two weeks prior to the Open, Washington experienced two periods of unseasonably high temperatures, including consecutive days a week before the Open in which the heat index reached above 100 degrees. The impact on the turf was immediate. Suddenly, cutting the greens as short as the USGA wanted — essentially, making them as fast as required to test the world’s best players — would mean putting the grass in jeopardy.