At one point in Dave Stockton's walk down the 18th fairway at Congressional Country Club yesterday, he stopped to look at the panorama of trees, lakes, the final green and the mamoth backdrop of the white-stucco and red-tile clubhouse.
"I'd forgotten just how tough this course was," said Stockton to one of his partners as they played a tuneup, pro-am round before today's start of the $400,000 Kemper Open. "I'm playing well out of pure fear."
Then, after a four-year delay, the idea hit Stockton for the first time.
"How the hell did I ever win the PGA on this golf course?" he muttered.
Since the 1964 U.S. Open, when Ken Venturi won in a legendary finish, the best golfers in the world have only come to the Washington area once -- for the '76 PGA at Congressional, which Stockton won by a shot. For the past couple of days, Congressional has been introducing itself to those pros once more. The meeting has been one of warm, mutual respect.
"What a pleasure," said Tom Watson after a practice round. "Congressional is long and tough . . . a great course. But there's no rough. You can step up and let it fly."
"It'll be a treat to play a truly fine course at an ideal time of year," said Ray Floyd, who was second in the '76 PGA, and played the final 36 holes of the '64 Open here with Venturi.
"You can tell by the quality of the field that a lot of players are excited about this tournament."
Except for the absence of Jack Nicklaus, who is home in North Palm Beach, Fla., for the high school graduation of his son, Jack Jr., this relocated event with the $72,000 first prize has as good a field as many major championships: 13 of the top 16 PGA Tour money winners are here.
Part of the explanation is that Deane Beman, the tour's commissioner and a Washingtonian, has done an excellent job of getting his top horses to come here for an event that he has always wanted in his hometown.
The Kemper -- on four-year trial basis at Congressional -- is certainly Beman's gift to his old stomping grounds.
The other side of the coin, however, is that the event, on this course, and at this time of year, has an unusual number of natural blessings.
"It's depressing that we have to play so many great courses at the wrong time of the year," said Watson. "From Pebble Beach to the Southwest courses to the ones we've just come from in Texas, it's unavoidable that we have to play them when they are far from their best condition. Often, we're months away from their peak.
"That's why it's so nice to play Congression now."
"Before, we played here in miserable weather," said Floyd. "Both the ('64) Open in July and the ('76) PGA an August were just a sweat box. I was 21 years old in '64, and I was having trouble making it. I was seriously worried about Venturi.
"Now, we get to come to Washington in a month when it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world."
The pros also are pleased to play Congressional because no one is yet certain what type of player should do best on it.
"Congressional clearly favors a long hitter, like George Burns or myself," Floyd said. "But it also favors a great up-and-downer, like Stockton or Gary Player, because the approach shots to the long par-4s are so difficult that everybody is going to miss plenty of greens and have to find ways to get out of jail."
Players aren't even sure if the course will yield scores higher or lower than Stockton's winning 281 in '76. "The rough may be light," Stockton said, "but the greens are lighting fast, not as true and even a more brownish color.
"My last puff of '76, I remember thinking, 'This green is so perfect and true that I don't think I can miss. You won't be able to say that this time. There'll be some bumps on those putts."
"The course is playing l-o-n-g, and the greens are extremely hard, fast and difficult," Watson said. "I don't think anyone can break par (70) four times in a row. The winner almost has to be a long, high-ball hitter. Andy Bean or Jerry Pate come to mind. I think 280 would win it, but it could be several strokes higher if it stays dry and the wind picks up."
Watson may proclaim, "I'll take even-par 280 right now, and not even bother to tee it up," but many others here dream of the chance to shoot a reputation-building low number on Congressional now that it is not rigged with punitive major-tournament weeds in which an elephant could get lost.
"As long as it doesn't rain, we've got good firm greens and a tough, fair course," tour official Labron Harris said.
What if it rains, as forecasters say it may Friday or Saturday?
"I'm leaving town," Harris joked. "Then, it's possible that somebody will shoot the lights out."
"There's no doubt that Watson is capable of winning this tournament by several shots," said no less a handicapper than Beman. "The truth is that he's been hitting the ball kind of cruddy recently -- at least by his standards -- but in his last five events he's finished 1-1-1-4-2.
"If he ever comes out of this slump," Beman said, laughing, "Watson might lap the field."
Watson still has one large flaw in his game: he has not found the way to fine-tune himself for the majors, as documented by the fact that he has only one victory in a U.S. major. Last year, he took two weeks off before the U.S. Open, his game went from brilliant to miserable and he missed the Open cut. This year, Watson will use Congressional as a stepping stone, trying to stay in his red-hot scoring groove for the Open week after next.
If Watson is the week's most logical pick, then, unfortunately, the tour's No. 2 money winner and its most lovable personality, Lee Trevino, may not have the style of game for Congressional.
"Lee could win anywhere, because he's great," Floyd said, "but this is definitely a very tough course for him because of the elevation of the greens. On about seven holes, you have to hit a high shot that will land softly on an elevated green. Lee would prefer to hit it low."
Predictions are perhaps more ridiculous in golf than in any sport, what with a field of 156 players any one of whom can turn from hot to cold orvice versa overnight. Nevertheless, nearly anonymous Mike Reid, who claims to have a rooting gallery of two, has interesting qualifications.
Reid not only ranks in the top three in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation, but is third on the tour behind Watson and Trevino in stroke average. He has finished third in three of his last four tournaments.
"I got married last winter," Reid said. "That doubled my gallery. Then I had my caddie. Now, I have my wife, too."
Lack of appreciation, however, should not be a problem at this Kemper Open.