In its third round yesterday, the Kemper Open began to assume the sights and sounds of a big-time tournament. From tee to green at the par-3 seventh hole, every spot of unobstructed space was filled; appreciation for excellence rolled across the lush acreage, as did gallery lines someone unfamiliar with golf might consider the nattiest refugees in history.
It was about time, for although much in this well-ordered sport is relative, the first two rounds suggested Washington was welcoming the four-year relationship with Kemper and the PGA Tour with indifference, enough in fact to make some officials wonder if tinkering with two sacred holes might be necessary.
The area's enthusiasm for two major tournaments in 15 years at Congressional suggested a routine four-day show by these small businessmen in cleats also would be an overwhelming success, that Washington had a chance to smash par for attendance.
Kemper prides itself on "reliable estimates" of crowds. And the 10,000 or so the first day and 15,000 or so the second left the Kemper elite publicly giddy but veternan Washington Golf watchers baffled.
"Terrific," said Steve Lesnik, president of Kemper Sports Management. "The crowds on the practice days in Charlotte (site of the tournament the last several years) were in the hundreds; here they were in the thousands."
"Just an eyeball look, of course," said Jim Kemper, "but Friday's crowd looked as big as any we ever got in Charlotte on a (final-round) Sunday."
Still, that first-round crowd was about 6,000 fewer than had attended the first round of the U.S. Open at Congressional in 1964. The second round was more than 2,000 fewer than a comparable Open crowd. Of course, the Open is much more prestigious; but the area also is much larger.
The 21,998 who watched Ken Venturi's memorable 36 holes was a near record for an Open at the time. The total of 55,548 was second best in Open history. The four-day total of 115,110 for the '76 PGA, although whispered as a mite inflated around Congressional these days, broke the previous record by nearly 32,000.
It hardly was paddled that much.
So in the golf-crowd league, Washington has been one of the Watsons. Or at least for the tournaments for which much of the athletic world cares.
Crowdwise, the opening days of this Kemper were ordinary by PGA Tour standards, clearly disappointing to those with memories of Washington's prior passions for golf.
"Not probably as many as I expected," said Dave Stockton, who won the '76 PGA. "But plenty."
As Congressional can overwhelm the best of golfers with its length, it also can make a fine crowd seem small. Where 15,000 might step all over one another on some courses, that size of crowd seems no more than might watch a major amateur match at Congressional.
Congressional can hold 35,000 comfortably.
"I could see maybe 50,000 for Sunday," Lesnik said. "You could get 25 to 30,000 watching the 18 green, up the hillside and all.What a sight that would be."
It will be necessary if the area is to be among the attendance leaders in the clubhouse. After an ugly, rain-marred morning kept attendance to 17,500 yesterday, the total -- including 8,000 for the pro-am -- was about 50,000.
At least 10 regular tour stops exceed 100,000 for the four rounds and pro-am, a PGA official said. The average attendance for the '76 PGA was 26,000.
Golf hardly is a family spectator sport, more expensive even than most NFL games. But the $12-per-round tickets here are about what the market will bear elsewhere for tournaments.
And, with the exception of leader boards, which have been too few and woefully tardy, the tournament has been as fan-oriented as any. Congressional has enough natural elevation and distance for anyone with the mind and energy to see most shots.
Perhaps the course is to blame. What else? With the exception of a fading Jack Nicklaus, the field is as good as for any tournament, including the majors.
Golf fans can accept near- and above-par rounds from the golf masters in the Open and PGA, the theory goes, but will flock to ordinary events only to see birdies every other hole.
Some of the pros are livid about the condition of the greens. Browns, they call them. You need little brakes on the golf ball to stop it.
"If they stay like this," one fine player muttered on the 16th tee Friday, "half the field won't show up next year."
Yes they will.
Any tournament that offers a $72,000 first prize and more than $3,500 for 25th place will attract a splendid field. And any tournament two weeks before the Open will lure most of the best.