In essence, the golf course seems better for the regular tour event, hosted by Tiger Woods and benefiting his foundation, than it did for Congressional’s third U.S. Open.
“It’s in as good a shape as any time since I’ve been here,” said John Lyberger, the club’s director of golf.
There are some easy-to-point-to reasons, but none is more important than the greens. In July 2009 — just after the last AT&T National here, before the event took a two-year hiatus to suburban Philadelphia — Congressional undertook a complete rebuild of the greens on the Blue Course, replacing poa annua grass with bentgrass, which was likely to be more resilient so it could better endure Washington’s hot summers. The Open, then, took place just 20 months after those greens went in, and they weren’t yet fully mature and thus more susceptible to extreme heat or rain.
That also means the greens are now firmer, conditions that officials from the U.S. Golf Association, which stages the Open, desperately wanted but were unable to get, particularly when extremely warm temperatures preceded the event, putting undue stress on the grass. Several overnight thunderstorms the week of the Open further softened the greens. The course had no defense. And a few greens, in the ensuing months, were damaged.
Since then, Congressional has benefited not only from time but also from ideal weather in the winter and spring. The club also took some steps, including reducing the amount of water put on the course in the spring and limiting play a bit more, that helped it get firmer.
“There’s a number of initiatives that we took to help the greens recover from last year, because they had shown signs of stress after the Open,” said Greg Lamb, a Congressional member who serves as the club’s tournament director for the AT&T National. “So the course is spectacular now.”
All of this means that McIlroy’s winning score, a U.S. Open record for strokes under par (16) and lowest total score (268), likely won’t be matched in this, a regular PGA Tour event. Such a flip-flop seems unusual, because the USGA normally tries to present a course in its most difficult conditions. The PGA Tour, when it comes through for an annual stop, is generally more accommodating.