The U.S. Open gives Washington the big-time sports experience it deserves


Congressional Country Club has several holes, such as No. 16, whose fairways are guarded by mature trees. It is a course best suited for long hitters. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist May 2, 2011

The U.S. Open gives Washington the big-time sports experience it deserves

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

In my lifetime, my favorite big-time sports experience in Washington has been the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. For just the third time in 47 years, it’s coming back next month, from June 16 to 19. You could say I’ve been waiting.

No one is more surprised by this conclusion than me. When I began mulling where the U.S. Open stands in local history, I didn’t think it could possibly be quite so high. Then I realized that golf, at its highest level of our national championship, is a week-long area-wide summer celebration, a bazaar of different moods on different days. It makes up in length, richness and variety what it may lack in a three-hour one-game explosion.

“Given the sorry state of so many of our local teams, we’ve had a real dearth of top-of-the-mountain sports events in this town for quite a while. So people are ready for this,” Congressional co-Chairman Ben Brundred said Monday. “There are financial incentives for [Congressional] to do this. But there’s also a sense that the nation’s capital deserves to have, at least occasionally, big-time golf. If we don’t do it, who will?”

Maybe, in part, my appreciation of this Open is an acknowledgement of what this town has never had: an Olympics, a Super Bowl, a World Cup or, since 1933, a World Series. Those are big voids. The biggest events in tennis, boxing and auto racing seldom, if ever, landed here. We’ve hosted the Final Four, but not with any local team involved.

Perhaps it’s an admission that, when the Bullets won the ’78 NBA title at the Capital Centre, pro basketball wasn’t as important a sport as it’s become and that, when the Caps lost the Stanley Cup in ’98, far fewer people cared whether or not you “Rocked the Red.”

Strictly for thrills with a local bias, of course, I’ll admit that my family yelled loudest for those NFC championship wins at RFK Stadium in ’72, ’83, ’84, ’88 and ’92. But those were discrete one-day explosions of insanity. And, except for Redskins season ticket holders, those were TV events, not in-the-crowd experiences for most people I knew.

However, there’s something about the phrase “total experience” rather than just the notion of attending one cathartic game that appeals to me. And golf, especially at the level of a weeklong U.S. Open, is a total-immersion experience. It’s like a seven-day golf tailgate party that will end with 40,000 people erupting in roars around the 523-yard par-4 18th hole on Sunday evening.

I love it because it’s the ultimate competition in one of the world’s premiere games; and it’s held outdoors in summer on the most beautiful venue, by far, on which sports is contested in this area. I love it because it’s supremely tense, except for all the hours when it’s utterly relaxed. For a mega-event it’s even relatively affordable; kids 12-and-under get in free, two per adult ticket holder. Let mom and dad show up at the Super Bowl or World Series and say, “Hey, can we bring four kids in for nothing?”

I love it because you don’t just have one seat for a game that lasts a few hours. There’s beer, but nobody seems to scream in your ear or cuss at a ref. Instead, everybody has room and time. You can go anywhere you want on all 7,545 yards of rolling wooded Congressional. If you want a 10-hour day that’s part golf cheering, part scenic hilly hike, part picnic under a huge old tree and mostly a blissful sense that “it just doesn’t get much better than this,” then the Open is the perfect place.

Oh, and because golf is quiet for putting, most electronic devices are banned: “Sorry, boss, I can’t be reached. I’m at the Open . . . all day.” You know, like a free human being.

You don’t have to be a season ticket holder, or “know somebody” at Augusta National to get in. The weekend is already sold out. Hey, it’s the Open. But, for now, there are still tickets for Thursday and Friday as well as three practice rounds where players are relaxed and sign autographs or pose for pictures. Try that at the Olympics.

“Visually, I love the course — old school, beautiful-looking, huge mature trees. They’ve [lengthened it], but it still manages to flow from one hole to the next. It feels like it fits” the land, defending U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said Monday after seeing Congressional for the first time in his life and realizing that, well, it probably couldn’t suit his medium-long game much worse. Ultra-long high-ball blasters flourish here; few others need apply.

Even golf fans may not sense how unusual it is to get an Open. The U.S. Golf Association moves its glamour event all around the country to promote the game, sometimes to towns such as Pinehurst, N.C., Tulsa, or Tacoma, Wash. To the USGA, being a mega-market is a mixed blessing.

“You wonder, ‘Jeez, is this traffic and parking going to work?’ ” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said. “And we’re still not sure here in D.C.”

Logistics, rather than an historic course or big crowds or an exciting tournament, may define whether the U.S. Open remains an institution here or a memory.

For now, the Beltway, a far more vicious animal now than it was in ’97, has not yet sunk Washington’s place in big-time golf. We get to gawk at the 636-yard ninth hole with a vast gulch in front and unplayable rough at the bottom. Is the 11th hole even playable?

“The 18th hole might be the hardest hole I’ve ever seen,” McDowell said.

Just a few more weeks and it’ll be time to mow the greens until the Stimpmeters read a lightning 14.5, compared to those calming 11.5 readings at Pebble Beach last year.

It’s big-time golf. Get the on-site 24/7 psychiatrists ready. These guys are going to need ’em. The U.S. Open is coming back to big broad-shoulder Congressional. You never know when, or if, it’ll happen again. And, in sports, it doesn’t get any better.

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