The Kemper Open began yesterday with zany characters and controversy and with brillant golf and anguished curses as the pro tour brought some of its too-often-hidden flavor to Congressional Country Club.
To those few Washingtonians -- an estimated 10,000 -- who found their way to this $400,000 show on a bluebird day, the Kemper blasted off with seven haggard but elated gentlemen who broke par (70) under trying conditions.
J. C. Snead, Dave Hill, John Mahaffey and Jay Haas were the quartet of leaders at 68, one shot ahead of Lee Trevino, Lindy Miller and Barry Jaeckel. Tom Watson had 71.
The pro's reaction to the baked, 7,054-yard course that Lee Elder called "harder than the brickyard track at the Indy 500," covered a wild and colorful spectrum.
"There's a major-championship atmosphere here," said Trevino. "A great course, great weather and great conditions. What more could you ask than this?"
"This course is a slap in the face to us . . . a great layout that's been set up all wrong . . . an illustration of the worst trend in golf: courses where no human can break par," fumed Andy Bean. "Congressional would be great if they didn't do a damn thing to it. But the greens have been dried out until they're rock hard. Holes have been changed or tees moved so that nobody can make birdies, and that's not right. It's killing interest in our game."
Everything about this first round had a slightly hallucinatory tilt, starting with the leaders.
Snead, who one week ago was grumbling about quitting the tour if he didn't play better, flabbergasted Jim Lemon, the former Washington Senator manager and slugger, by begging the nongolfer for a golf lesson a few days ago. Lemon obliged, applying baseball principles to golf, and Snead has responded with a succession of 320-yard drives, the longest of his life.
Even so, Snead started his round with three straight duck hooks off the tee and was so furious that he said, "I was ready to walk back in before I hurt somebody. I was hot an' runnin'. I was lookin' for the bear about then. One more bogey, and I figure I'd have been mad enough to lick that bear if I'd have found him."
Even more bizarre was the case of the outspoken Hill, who wandered in at sundown to tie for the lead after almost everybody had gone home. Like a soul in torment, Hill, the swing purist, described how he has endured a purgatory of "hitting the ball sideways since 1977" and "forgetting everything except my name and home phone number."
The 37-year-old Hill, who slept through his only scheduled practice round this week and who became so desperate over his putting in midround yesterday that he switched to a crosshanded grip and sank three birdies in a row, practically yawned over finding himself in the lead.
"Tournament golf doesn't excite me anymore," said Hill, exempt as one of the PGA's 50 all-time money winners. "I practically fall asleep out there three or four times a round. I'm just trying to get my handicap down to one or two."
Folks at Congressional could only agree on one simple rational matter yesterday: the ambiance of this Kemper Open is magnificent.
On this warm, windless day of late spring, Congressional's terraces and verandas overlooked a rolling, forested Maryland countryside dotted with golf pros in torment. The balmy scene gave away little to the aura of Augusta National in April. The stakes may not be nearly as high, nor the course as wonderful, but the total setting here is on the same level of surpassing beauty.
"You get that major-tournament excitment," said Trevino, who has added a six-wood to his bag for Congressional's elevated greens. "You gotta park three blocks away. Then you see about 14,000 security people. Everybody treats you like royalty. That huge clubhouse looks out over everything.
"Then, you go out on a course that may play tougher than Baltusrol, where the Open'll be in two weeks. I know Open greens can't be faster than these 'cause they're solid slick."
Those greens drew a thesaurus-full of adjectives.
"Very treacherous . . . like concrete," said Tom Watson, who figured that two-over-par to six-over would be a winning score, depending on the wind.
"I had a real tough 18-inch birdie putt," said Snead, "cause if I missed it, it was gonna go eight feet past."
"This course is like 18 crooked bowling alleys," said Jaeckel, referring to the hard fairways that provided huge rolls and cut the length of the course. "Somebody better go out there with a hose real soon."
Ed Fiori, after watching a short chip short roll from the front of the green off the back, summarized the sentiments of the sufferers when he growled, "This -- golf course."
Many top players here -- including Watson, Trevino and Mahaffey -- say that they prefer just such a patience-demanding, punitive, weed-out-the-mediocre course. But Bean, sixth on the money list, was the most vociferous of the dissenting faction.
"People want to see birdies, not bogeys," said Bean, the tour's birdie leader who shot 76 yesterday. "I'm worrying about the populartiy of our sport five years from now, but I don't think some of our officials are.
"Each year, we have more courses where the best players can't show what they're capable of, where they can't excite a crowd, or be colorful.We're rewarding dull, cautious play, rather than aggressive, go-for-the-hole golf.
"I love Congressional, but with the greens this hard you can't attack because a good shot and a bad shot are almost equally likely to bounce off the green. You have to play for the safe middle.
"The two par-5s here are about the dullest anywhere because nobody can reach them in two. Everybody plays them by laying up. We should be drawing crowds of 40,000 from a metropolitan area this big, not 10,000.
"Because Jack (Nicklaus) likes this kind of course where patience is rewarded, we've seen more and more of that type on the tour over the last few years.
"We have players with the capability of doing spectacular crowdpleasing things, but people aren't getting to see it."
Obviously, the opposing school of thought is that fans like to see fellows like the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bean (who can bite the cover off a golf ball and who has wrestled alligators) tearing their hair out in frustration.
Unless thundershowers soften this course, the theme of this Kemper will continue to be the thousand-and-one sufferings and complaints caused by mean old Congressional.
Some think that the par-4 sixth and 10th holes, both converted par-5s guarded by water, are just too fearsome at 456 and 460 yards, respectively. Others think that the second and 16th holes, both uphill, blind par-3s that can play 215 yards, are on the overly nasty side.
Only the seven men under par currently find life here sweet. "Congressional suits me fine. . . . for today," grinned Mahaffey, who said he had never driven so consistently far in his life.
The modest Miller credited his 69 to a holed bunker shot for a birdie, but added, "I had so much practice in the sand I should have made one. I was in five traps. At one stage, I missed seven greens in a row and wondered if I'd ever hit another one."
Haas, who joined the leader board so late that only 56 people were in the grandstand as he played his final hole, started his round with a 40-yard, chip-in birdie and even saved a par on a 453-yard hole after "the shortest drive of my life -- a 150-yard popup that almost didn't make it to the fairway."
Amid this tiny circle of gleeful men, Snead was the happiest. Despite his current statistical standing as the PGA's longest driver, Snead has been in misery because, "it wasn't my goal to be the tour's longest and wildest driver."
Remembering a helpful chat with Ted Williams a decade ago, discussing the proper mechanics of hitting a ball with a stick, Snead sought out Lemon, a Maryland resident who had been the Nat's minor-league batting instructor when Snead was a lefty outfielder in the Senator chain in the '60.
"I got back to using my hips in the golf swing just like you do in the baseball swing -- gettin' 'em out of the way real fast," said Snead, who won two pro-ams here within the last three days. "Now, I'm hitting it so far and straight that it's almost a joke."
One of the few solutions to hard greens is hitting a monstrous drive, like Snead's current bazookas, that leave only a high, soft wedge remaining to the green.
"Hitting the kind of frozen ropes that I am now will put some jingle in your pocket," beamed Snead.
As for most of the rest of this Kemper field, if either the rain or the hose doesn't come to their aid soon, they're going to get madder every day.
In the meantime, any bears passing through Maryland better bypass Congressional if they know what's good for them.