The back tee box at Congressional Country Club’s 11th hole is practically pressed up against the clubhouse, and beginning Thursday morning, it will stretch out to its full 489 yards in front of each of the 120 players in the Quicken Loans National field. There is a creek running down the right side, thick rough and trees on the left, a green guarded on the right by water and on the left by bunkers.
Last year, outside of the U.S. Open at dastardly Merion Golf Club, Congressional’s 11th was the most difficult hole on the PGA Tour. It fits into what the club wants the world to know: that its Blue Course is punishing, even for the best players in the world. It fits in with what the tournament’s host, Tiger Woods, prefers.
“I like it to be hard,” Woods said.
But it doesn’t, generally, fit in with what a typical PGA Tour stop offers. What happens at Congressional this week amounts to a balancing act: a course worthy of hosting U.S. Opens, which it has done three times, staging an event that is wedged between the U.S. and British Opens. Will it be beastly or benign?
“Everybody’s concerned about good scores,” said Mark Russell, the vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour. “But if there’s no wind and conditions are good, I don’t care where you are: 10 guys are going to play good. But people forget: There’s going to be a lot of really good players that the golf course handled, too.
“We want to set the golf course up as difficult as it can play but fair. That’s what matters to us, and that’s what the players want.”
Statistics show Congressional was among the hardest courses on tour a year ago, though not the most brutal. Taking out the venues that hosted majors, it ranked fourth-most difficult, playing an average of 1.1 strokes over par. The top three: PGA National (Honda Classic), Muirfield Village (Memorial) and Innisbrook Resort (Tampa Bay Championship).
Those kinds of statistics can help shape the type of field a venue draws. The Blue Course this week looks immaculate, and the rough is thick — though not chop-it-out thick. At three or four inches, it still gives players an opportunity to advance the ball toward the green. But at a maximum of 7,569 yards, Congressional is also the second-longest course on tour, meaning players must frequently hit drivers off the tee, which brings the rough into play.
“Real thick rough like we’ve got out here this week, if we played it every week, you’d see more wrist injuries and . . . we would be exhausted,” said Bill Haas, who last year won this event, then known as the AT&T National, at 12 under par. “People probably wouldn’t play as much, maybe. Maybe that’s why we see the big names not play as much because the courses they are typically playing are the hardest ones, for sure.”
That’s a matter of personal preference. Woods, the 14-time major champion whose foundation benefits from this event, on Wednesday played his first round in public following his March 31 back surgery. When he won here in 2012, his 8-under total of 276 was two better than anyone else in the field. That suits him just fine.
“This golf course is going to play tough,” Woods said Wednesday after 18 holes in a pro-am. “Guys aren’t going to go low around here.”
Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Texan who will play alongside Woods in the first two rounds, said he loves “big, American golf courses” such as Congressional, and indeed, he was tied for the lead in this event after two rounds a year ago after opening 66-69.
“I mean, some events, you can go out and shoot 66 and feel like you played okay,” said Spieth, who will join Woods and Jason Day in the marquee group of the first two rounds. “And then you get in and you find out everybody shot 66. I don’t like it that way.”
Spieth, it should be noted, posted his lone tour victory last July at the John Deere Classic, where he shot a 19-under total to get into a playoff. Over time, each player in the field decides which way he likes it. And the tour provides it all: Of the 39 courses that hosted PGA Tour events last year — excluding the majors — 18 averaged over-par scores, 21 averaged under par.
“I think we have plenty of tournaments out on tour where there’s a birdie-fest, and the real stout tests are becoming fewer and far between out on tour,” said Justin Rose, who won the U.S. Open last year at Merion, which played as the toughest course all year. “I’ve always liked playing golf that 10 under wins. To me, that’s a great tournament.”
While Russell maintains, “We don’t care about the score,” others do because, fairly or not, it helps define what people think about the tournament and the venue.
That’s worth remembering this week, as the 11th hole — and others — punish the field.
“It beat me last year,” Haas said, remembering both a double and a triple bogey.
Haas overcame that by putting out of his mind. But he knows that can’t be counted upon.
“If you are off your game, you are going to struggle,” Rose said, “which is the way I think it should be.”