There’s a reason the PGA Tour decided to start any playoff in the Quicken Loan National at Congressional Country Club on the 18th hole. It’s not just the sweeping downhill left-bending beauty of the hole with the massive clubhouse as a backdrop. The character of the hole reflects the game’s character. It’s a deceitful, intimidating-yet-tempting test that demands skill, judgment and guts.
To the left of the 18th green there is water. It’s not hidden. In fact, the pond is visible from 30,000 feet. As soon as you see it, you say, “Bet I shouldn’t hit it in that pond.”
But year after year, generation after generation, from victims in various U.S. Opens to Shawn Stefani, Brendan Steele and eventual winner Justin Rose — all of whom tried to throw away the Quicken Loans National on Sunday — underestimate the slope of the hillside or the hook tilt of their lie or the odds their nerves will betray them. And they hit it left into that innocent, avoidable, magnetic water.
The lore gets passed down, how Tom Lehman lost an Open to Ernie Els in that pond (though it was No. 17 then), how everything about the hole is designed to fool you into thinking you have more margin for error than you do. Then, blink, you’re dead.
Steele made his splash early Sunday and got his misery out of the way. He made double bogey then realized, an hour later, that a par would have put him in a playoff. Next, Rose, leading the tournament by a shot, splashed his ball in the pond and needed to make an excellent up-and-down for bogey just to get into a playoff with Stefani.
Finally, poor Stefani, ranked 246th in the world and playing in only his 33rd PGA Tour event, was overwhelmed by the stage on which he suddenly found himself and took an unnecessary gamble on the only playoff hole — the 18th hole. He tried a punch hook shot, hoping to set up a birdie chance when playing for par probably would have extended the playoff. For a moment, he thought he had pulled off the shot he imagined. Then his ball kicked left until the pond swallowed it, sending Stefani to a double bogey and Rose to a routine par and victory.
“It’s one of the most intimidating-looking shots in golf, and it’s one of the best second shots in golf with the Congressional clubhouse sitting at the top of the hill. . . . That’s gut-check time,” Rose said. “That makes Ernie Els’s 5-iron shot in there in the U.S. Open one of the great shots of all time.”
On the 72nd hole, trying to protect his lead, Rose drove into trouble to the left but thought he could punch a four-iron shot 209 yards downhill to the green — exactly the kind of heroics the hole’s visual appeal sucks golfers into attempting. “I was hoping it was going to be the glory shot for a second or two off the face, but as I ran after it and nearly tripped over a wire, nearly made a fool of myself, I realized,” Rose said.
Realized what? “No chance of staying up,” he said.
Stefani, not long after, watched his ball bound and bound — almost identically, until its last hop ended in a splash — to hand Rose the win he had nearly given away.
Many an 18th-hole victim still doesn’t quite understand what has befallen him after the day’s misery is over. Steele, who was 4 under par — the eventual playoff score — hooked into the water and was still in disbelief after his round. “I drew a pretty good lie. I don’t really know why it did that. I was trying to hit it right [to a safe part of the green for a par] and at least post something,” Steele said. “It just came out, I mean, 25, 30 yards left of my target for some reason.”
Great golf courses have a finishing hole that, after an exhausting 71 holes over four days, is the concluding examination of talent, analysis and guts, all rolled into one. In the case of the Quicken Loan National, with huge throngs from the crowd of 36,678 surrounding the final hole on hillsides and in stands, they got to see the signature 18th do its dirty work.
After his final putt, Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion who’s ranked 10th in the world, said, “Congressional got its reputation back this week.”
When Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open here in 2011, the course was soft and defenseless for four days and his 16-under score shattered the Open record. In regular Tour events played here since Tiger Woods began hosting the event in 2007, there have been winning scores of 8 and 12 under par. This time, the whole leader board was collapsing all Sunday afternoon and Congressional, playing hard and fast with healthy rough, got back its own and more.
A typical example was third-round leader Patrick Reed, who had won three Tour events in the past 10 months but came unglued at the tough 10th and 11th holes, double bogeying both, to fall from a one-shot lead (at 6 under) to an afterthought with a 77.
Three months ago the brazen Reed, 23, said he was one of the five best golfers on Earth. And he truly believed it. He had gone 3 for 3 in holding third-round leads on Sundays. So he was mystified at the criticism and some mockery that followed his self-evaluation. But the reason was simple. Golfers grade performance on major championships far more than the easier Tour stops. And Reed had left no dent on any of them. In Congressional, he met a U.S. Open-like setup. The top five looks safe.
Which felt more like an Open venue, this middling-field Quicken Loans National or the real U.S. Open two weeks ago at Pinehurst No. 2? Since Rose is an Open champion, you might expect a knee-jerk defense of Pinehurst. Instead, he said, “This looks visually like a U.S. Open to me, the green-looking rough, the tight-looking fairways. For me, holes like No. 15 here just look like a U.S. Open — just framed really nicely. . . . Pinehurst played like an Open course — look at the score that finished second [1 under par].
“But for me, U.S. Opens are more this style — this Northeast look.”
So in a week dominated by little-known names, a week when host Tiger Woods missed the cut, the sun finally set on two classic proven winners at their best — Rose and Congressional itself.