Underneath the 7,574 yards the field for the 111th U.S. Open will face this week lies the soul of Congressional Country Club. Long before the United States Golf Association decided to bring the Open back for a third time, 90 years before organizers pushed the tees to the fences and created the second-longest course in Open history, a New Yorker named Devereux Emmet looked at the land off River Road in Bethesda and saw a different course.
Emmet was a prolific designer in his day, from the late 1800s into the 1920s, creating more than 130 courses during what is known as the “Golden Age” of golf course architecture. Now, he can seem an afterthought, just another ODG — “Old dead guy,” in the parlance of golf architecture junkies — without the name, the reputation, the romance of contemporaries such as Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and Alister MacKenzie.
“There’s such an emphasis on length and fast greens now, and I understand,” said Mark Chalfant, a former curatorial assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who last year started the Devereux Emmet Society. “But I guess I wish more people appreciated what he did. It was a very specialized art.”
It was not, though, appreciated by everyone, particularly as the game and tastes evolved. Emmet was prolific, but he worked primarily in and around New York, where it was easy to be overshadowed. He built several of his courses in the 1920s, and when the Great Depression followed, there were precious few tournaments to be held on them, so potential notoriety slipped away. Some of his courses have, too, long since been plowed under in the name of progress.
There was also the matter of Emmet’s style. He wasn’t shy of blind shots, par 6s, oddities that fell out of favor as time went on. Author Geoff Shackelford, who has written several books on golf course architecture and design, calls Emmet “a real unsung character” whose work wasn’t embraced by architects who followed.
“Emmet was on the quirky side when it came to design, meaning his courses were fun, sometimes unusual and often inspired by famous holes from the U.K.,” Shackelford said. “So a lot of his design work at places like Congressional was misunderstood by club committee types and less interesting architects, like Robert Trent Jones, who were more obsessed with fairness and protecting par.”
Thus, Emmet’s work at Congressional, which opened in 1924, will be barely detectable during the Open this week. Ross, the transplanted Scotsman who is perhaps the best known golf course architect stateside — and whose signature Pinehurst No. 2 hosted the Open in 1999 and 2005 — did some work at Congressional in the 1930s. Jones got his hands on the course in the 1950s, finishing a third nine and then, in the early ’60s, changing the routing of one of Emmet’s nines. The current ninth hole, a 636-yard par 5, used to be a par 4 and a par 3, and the directions of several holes were changed.
By 1989, when Rees Jones, Robert Trent Jones’s son, helped to prepare Congressional for its pursuit of the 1997 U.S. Open, Emmet’s influence was basically wiped out.
“I don’t think there’s much left, to be honest,” Rees Jones said. Jones shaved down several fairways, eliminating most of the blind shots with heavy lifting.
“Back in those days, you didn’t really move a lot of earth,” Jones said of Emmet’s era. “We’re able to do a lot more shaping.”
For this Open, the USGA added seven tee boxes that not only make holes longer, but provide different angles to some fairways. Officials moved the flow of some fairways, particularly the difficult 11th, pushing it up against a creek along the right side. And the club had already altered the finishing hole — turning what was the 18th for the 1997 Open, a par 3 over water, into the 10th. That leaves perhaps the best hole on the course — a downhill, 523-yard par 4 with a green surrounded by water on three sides — as the final hole of the tournament, one Jones now calls “one of the great finishing holes in golf.”
It is not, though, Emmet’s hole. Chalfant, the founder of the Emmet Society, has traveled the country and studied course architecture for 30 years. He is less wistful that Emmet is unlikely to be widely discussed on the broadcasts from Congressional — like Tillinghast was when Bethpage and Winged Foot staged the Open — because his work was altered so long ago. Garden City Golf Club and Huntington Country Club on Long Island are two of Emmet’s gems but will never host U.S. Opens. So Emmet’s legacy is largely like his work at Congressional — obscured by those who followed.
“He got so much out of the land he worked with,” Chalfant said. “He understood angles. He understood choices. I’d love it if people rediscovered him because of all that.”