Congressional Country Club is ready for 2011 U.S. Open, with greens overhaul complete

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three summers ago, Congressional Country Club unexpectedly found itself hosting a PGA Tour event, Tiger Woods's AT&T National, a marquee tournament thrown together in all of four months, effectively saving professional golf in Washington. When the inaugural event concluded, the Bethesda club's members got back on the heralded Blue Course, and the heat of a searing mid-Atlantic summer settled in. As more and more members played, and as the sweltering days piled up, the course -- supposed to be so pristine -- suddenly had thin spots.

"The greens, by August, were pretty much done," said Paul Klinedinst, a past president of the club.

A thorough and effective repair of greens takes time and disrupts play. And Congressional faced a deadline: The club was supposed to host the U.S. Amateur in 2009, then the U.S. Open -- golf's national championship -- in 2011.

"That," said Mike Giuffre, Congressional's director of greens and grounds maintenance, "is when this started happening," and he pointed to his bald pate.

As he did this, Giuffre stood last week on the Blue Course's first green, which looked as if it might host the Open this week. There were no signs of the upheaval of that sweaty summer, nor the ensuing -- and massive -- construction project in which every green on the course was dug up, fitted with a state-of-the-art drainage system, rebuilt and seeded with a new species of grass. There was no sign of a winter in which snow was piled so high that it nearly covered the 10-foot-tall clock that sits near the practice green. Congressional's greens are now all but ready for play, and the course will re-open to members June 15, less than a year after Giuffre's staff began the project, and 366 days before the first round of the 111th U.S. Open.

"It was crazy," Giuffre said. "We closed the golf course two days after the AT&T, then started work. We had a very limited time frame to do it. We had to get it all done, or there could have been problems for the Open."

Hosting a U.S. Open -- which Congressional has done twice before, in 1964 and 1997 -- involves far more than mowing the grass and throwing open the gates. To help Congressional prepare, the United States Golf Association, which stages the Open, agreed to move the 2009 U.S. Amateur to Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, and the AT&T National is taking a two-year hiatus to Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia. The USGA put staff in place at Congressional around last Labor Day -- more than 21 months before the event begins. The group has two rotating, on-site teams -- one for odd-year Opens, the other for even years -- that are charged with anticipating and solving every possible logistical problem.

And if there are problems at Congressional, golf fans -- some with keen recollection of history, the kind of people who remember Tom Lehman's approach into the water on what was then 17, where he essentially lost the '97 Open -- will remember them.

Thus, the greens must be perfect. Since renowned golf architect Rees Jones first overhauled the Blue Course in 1989, the putting surfaces had been overtaken by Poa annua, a grass that performs better on greens in cooler climates in the Northeast. Giuffre, who came to Congressional in 1999, wanted greens made of bentgrass, which has deeper roots and would better stand up to the heat of a Washington summer.

"Before Mike Giuffre got there, every product known to man was top-dressed into those greens" to help them hold up, Jones said. "It was a good idea to get a better, more heat-tolerant grass in there."

So Giuffre's spring has consisted of closely monitoring the soil temperature and the length of the grass's roots. Now, the front nine -- which was seeded last August, some three weeks before the back nine -- is close to ready. When Giuffre cut a cross section out of the first green last week, the "mat layer" of organic material and sand near the surface that helps cushion the grass -- allowing it to better withstand heavy foot traffic -- measured more than a half-inch, exactly what Giuffre needs to see. Some roots were nine or 10 inches long, another encouraging sign. Poa roots grow only two or three inches deep, and thus can virtually cook in the heat of a Washington summer. Converting to bentgrass will allow Congressional to cut down on its water usage, Giuffre said, because Poa must be sprinkled frequently to cool it off. Now, too, the greens are built on a sand mixture that is far better equipped to drain well.

"It's like a toilet," Giuffre said. "When it fills up to a certain point, it flushes. So it keeps water down at the bottom where the roots are, but doesn't keep it up top where it's going to get hot and start cooking the roots."

Congressional will also be able to cool the greens -- or dry them out -- with the flip of a switch. Each green is equipped with a subterranean system of pipes connected to a motor that sucks water out of the soil when there is too much -- say, after an afternoon thunderstorm -- or blows air back through them to cool the roots. The technology all but ensures there can't be a repeat of the disaster of the 2009 U.S. Open, held at Bethpage Black on Long Island, N.Y., when an excessively wet spring, along with torrential downpours during the tournament, created near chaos, with water regularly pooling on the greens.

Each green also now contains one or two "soil sensors," which allow course workers to tell precisely how wet or dry the soil is, what the temperature is and whether there is excessive salt, which can be damaging to the roots. All this, Giuffre said, "allows us to micromanage the greens in a way we couldn't before."

For the remainder of this summer, the greens won't roll like they will once the Open arrives. "For the first year, the priority has to be the health of the greens," Giuffre said, so the grass will remain a hair longer as it matures. But next year, everyone involved -- officials from Congressional and the USGA, as well as Jones, the architect -- believe the project will have more than served its purpose.

"We needed to do it for the club, for member play," said Klinedinst, who serves as co-chair of Congressional's U.S. Open committee.

"But we needed to do it for the Open, too. It's a little early to make a statement that everything is perfect, because the members have seen this, but they haven't played it. But we think it's going great."

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