The Ace of Clubs
Congressional Set for Transition to an Open Layout
Thursday, July 2, 2009
When the first ball flies through the Bethesda air at 7:10 this morning, officially opening the AT&T National and the latest iteration of professional golf in Washington, a transition begins. The conclusion of play Sunday at Congressional Country Club, closing Tiger Woods's tournament, will mark the interruption of a three-decade run for the PGA Tour in the nation's capital. Thus, almost immediately, begins the preamble to what could be the area's most visible golf event ever, the 2011 U.S. Open.
So look around now, this week, at Congressional's beautifully manicured, 7,255-yard layout, because when the top level of professional golf returns here, the course will be different, the field will be different, the flavor will be different.
"I've always preferred playing harder golf courses," Woods said this week, and that's good, because Congressional can get harder still. Woods will take his tournament to Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia for the next two years, a layout he called "one of the toughest golf courses there is." That will be, though, merely a PGA Tour event, exactly what Congressional will host this week. And a PGA Tour event -- even on a grand old golf course -- is not a U.S. Open.
"Think of it this way," said John Lyberger, Congressional's director of golf. "The PGA Tour is all about the entertainment value. They want the winning score somewhere around double digits [under par]. The USGA [which stages the Open] wants the winning score somewhere around level par. So if you surmise from there, the course will probably play about 10 shots harder in 2011 than it will this week."
The lack of an Open set-up -- with thicker rough and speedier greens -- and the position directly between two major championships means the lack of an Open-type field at the AT&T National as well. Woods is, by any measure, golf's most significant draw, and his presence on tour has long divided tournaments into two categories -- those that Tiger plays, and those that he doesn't.
But as much as the players who are here this week gush about the course and the event -- "It's a place that I would always put on my schedule because I think the world of the golf course," said 2003 Open champ Jim Furyk -- the field is not as star-studded as it might be.
Woods is here, playing after being forced to skip his own tournament a year ago following surgery on his left knee and leg. But he is the only participant in the top six on the PGA Tour's money list, and he and England's Paul Casey are the only members of the AT&T field from the top eight in the world rankings. The list of significant players who are here (Vijay Singh, defending champ Anthony Kim, Furyk, current Open champ Lucas Glover) might be outweighed by the list of players who aren't (world No. 2 Phil Mickelson, tour money leader Kenny Perry, Masters champ Angel Cabrera, and 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson, who has won twice on tour this year).
That, though, does not take away from the vibe the players say they feel here, since Woods basically saved PGA Tour golf in Washington by providing a title sponsor -- not to mention his name and presence -- to the event in 2007. Furyk said the AT&T National "definitely has that feel of an elite-level tour event." Indeed, only two other courses that host annual events on the regular tour -- Torrey Pines, outside San Diego, and Pebble Beach in northern California -- have also hosted U.S. Opens in the last half-century. Congressional hosted the Open in 1964 and 1997 before earning the right to host in two years, and the AT&T National will return from at least 2012 to '14.
"Just the look of it, the tradition of it, the history of it, it feels like an Open course," said Sean O'Hair, a 26-year-old three-time winner on tour who could be a contender in majors to come. "I just enjoy this. I would actually be completely fine if we had 20 of these events a year, and that was it. Events of this stature, on a course like this, it makes it worthwhile. Certain courses, you enjoy the tournament, but the course isn't quite this good and this enjoyable."
It might be enjoyable this week. In winning a year ago, Kim was able to post four rounds in the 60s. That will be all but impossible in two years. Not only will the USGA impose its normal, tortuous tactics on Congressional's Blue Course, it is in the process of adding as many as seven new tee boxes -- some of them way back. When Glover won the Open at Bethpage Black two weeks ago, the listed yardage was an Open-record 7,426. Bethpage also boasted three par-4s of 500 yards or longer, another Open record. When the field returns to Congressional, there could be a new yardage record for an Open built on the back of five 500-yard par-4s.
"This course, I think it's already tough enough," O'Hair said. "But you can see them adding some length."
That new length is, indeed, visible in some spots, even though it's not in play this week. There are four new tee boxes already built on the front nine, tees that won't be used until the Open. "You know they're there," Glover said, a bit ominously. But it is not yet a time to take mental images of the holes, then file them away to be pulled out in 2011.
"It's too early," Furyk said.
What is left, then, is this current tournament on this current course. Whatever happens this week, when the final putt rolls in on Sunday, there will be no top-level professional golf in Washington for a couple of years. Thus, for now, as Woods said, "We're looking forward to this week." Beyond that lurks a different field for a different tournament, still two years off.