Congressional Country Club is getting a head start on golf's 2011 U.S. Open
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The world's best golfers are already filtering onto the rocky coast along gorgeous 17-Mile Drive for the 110th U.S. Open. The focus this week will be on Pebble Beach Golf Links, on whether Tiger Woods can fix his swing on a course where he won the 2000 event and thus end a drought in major championships, and on the 156-player field that will compete for the title beginning Thursday.
Some 2,900 miles to the east, off River Road in Bethesda, the site of the 111th U.S. Open is already prepared. The tournament, to be staged at Congressional Country Club, is 368 days away, but officials from the club and the United States Golf Association, which stages the event, know the shape of every fairway, the yardage of every hole, the length of the rough, and how the old course will play.
"I think what we've come up with is just an excellent test," said Mike Davis, whose title -- the USGA's senior director of rules and competition -- doesn't quite explain his true impact on each Open.
Over the past four years, Davis worked with Congressional officials, course architect and heralded "Open Doctor" Rees Jones and other members of his USGA staff to create a course that everyone involved believes is better than the Congressional that hosted the 1997 Open. It is longer -- by a healthy 355 yards, a total of 7,568. It will play at par 71, as opposed to par 70 back then, with both the sixth and 16th holes now dare-you-to-reach-it-in-two par 5s. It will have a fundamentally different feel, with the former 18th hole, a par 3, now completely altered and serving as the 10th, and old No. 17 -- a rollicking, treacherous, downhill par 4 -- providing a proper, and potentially thrilling, finish.
"One thing we really worked hard on is trying to continue to make sure that the U.S. Open is the hardest test the players see each year," Davis said. "Maybe we don't get it every year, but we try. But we wanted to do that, and make it fair, where good shots were rewarded and bad ones were penalized."
When the USGA made the decision to award Congressional's Blue Course the Open in 2004, it had an idea of aspects it wanted to change. Get rid of the mounds along the fourth and eighth fairways, for instance. Add some tee boxes. The real negotiations began in 2006 and ended last spring.
"Mike and Rees each spent a day on the front end and came up with this kind of wish list, between what Mike Davis thought would be good and what Rees thought would be good," said Paul Klinedinst, who serves as co-chairman of Congressional's U.S. Open committee with Ben Brundred Jr. "Ben and I kind of said yes or no to each, and we got it whittled down to what you see now."
The most significant difference: In 1997, the 18th hole was still a par 3. Finishing in that manner -- forcing a player to just make one full swing under intense pressure, rather than two or three -- had always been controversial.
"With a PGA Tour-level player, you let them put a mid-iron in their hand, they're not going to hit it in the water," Davis said.
Open to changes
The PGA Tour's AT&T National -- staged at Congressional from 2007-09, and due to return in 2012 after giving way to the Open -- played with the current layout, finishing with the old 17th. But the Open is the Open, so things have to be set up differently (read: harder). When Ernie Els won the 1997 Open at Congressional, he hit 5-iron into that green. When Hunter Mahan shot a 62 in the final round of last year's AT&T National, he had a pitching wedge in his hand, essentially taking out of play the water that protects the green to the left and back.
"They had to push it back," Jones said. So they did, to a daunting 521 yards. Davis said he expects many players to need, say, a 4-iron, from a downhill lie, to reach the green.
"I just think that the 18th hole now is one of the great holes in the world," Jones said. "At a great golf course, it's really wonderful to have a great finishing hole, and we have that now."