Congressional Country Club is getting a head start on golf's 2011 U.S. Open

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; D01

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."

Making them 'think more'

The new tee box at 18 is just one of seven for the 2011 Open, areas created not just to add length, but to change some holes so they fit into Davis's vision for what an Open course should be. Davis has been involved in setting up Open courses for two decades, and has been in charge of the process -- one he describes as collaborative -- since 2006. He has received almost universal praise from players because he has taken away some of the brutal, punishing aspects of Open courses and instead gotten creative -- introducing, for instance, the idea of graduated rough, which gets progressively deeper farther from the fairway.

"He's a very good player, and second of all, he's very intelligent," Jones said. "What I like about him is he doesn't make snap decisions. He gets the feel of the place. He gets the feel of what he wants. . . . He's mixing up some yardages on some of the holes from day to day. That makes players think more. When they think more, I think they play better."

That took hold at Congressional. During the AT&T National, for instance, the sixth hole played as a par 4. But the club and theUSGA put in a new teeing ground, and it opened up some possibilities.

"I kept looking at it, and I talked to the tournament chairman, and I just said, 'I don't like it as a par 4,' " Davis said. "It becomes an unfair, long par 4. We wanted it to be a risk-reward par 5. We can get aggressive with the hole locations, and give the players a choice. If the hole's tight to the water, it could be tough, even if they lay up. I think it's a better, more interesting hole that way."

Thus, the layout is par 71, rather than the par 70 it plays to during the AT&T National. Another fundamental change comes at perhaps one of the course's best holes, the 494-yard, par-4 11th. Last year, when Woods won the AT&T National, his four results on 11 -- which is protected by a stream down the entire right side of the fairway -- were bogey, bogey, double bogey, bogey.

"Tiger actually helped me change that hole when he hit it in the water there," Jones said. The thinking: Get rid of the bunkers that actually gobbled up some balls that might have gone into the creek, and slide the fairway down to the right. The result: a fairway that is just two paces from the stream in most sections, and a tee shot that's even more daunting.

The changes, though, don't all have to do with making Congressional unrelenting. In fact, Davis, Jones and Klinedinst believe there will be some places where members will find it more forgiving because the trouble lies farther away than they can hit it.

"Obviously, some members are going to be upset with it," Klinedinst said. "But the good golfers are going to be happy with it, and it's not going to really affect the average golfer."

When the field of 156 assembles at Congressional in a year, there won't be an average golfer among them. What awaits, it seems, will be more than an average test.

"We really want to just look at each hole for what it is and say, 'How can we really showcase the architecture of this given hole?' " Davis said. "With the changes, I think we've done that. I'm really excited about the way Congressional should play."

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