In its three years at Congressional Country Club, the Kemper Open has never quite gotten the breaks. Famous golf pros have given stinging, even sarcastic critiques of the course's fairways and greens. Washington's early summer weather has been erratic, offering thunderstorms, heat and humidity. Final-day drama has been minimal as the tournament's champions have won by three, six and seven strokes, with never a trace of tension on the glamorous 72nd hole.
When play begins today, with the crowd-pleasing Walrus--Craig Stadler--trying to become the ninth golfer in 50 years to win an event three consecutive years, the Kemper and Congressional may finally get lucky.
The course is in such ideal, lush condition that even the tour pros can't find anything about which to nag. The week's predictions for partial sun and pleasant temperatures in the high 70s are a Washington anomaly for June, despite the threat of showers. Having the run of the spectacular Congressional clubhouse remains as gaudy an excuse to put on the Ritz--and pay top dollar--as the golfing public has at its disposal.
This Kemper's only obvious drawback is that the field of 154 lacks many of the sport's biggest names; among the top 10 career money winners among active players, only Tom Kite is entered here. Nonetheless, the tournament is deep in established players, including five of this year's top 10 money winners and 27 of the top 50. "The hungrier guys are here," says Lon Hinkle.
This week's biggest surprise so far is that the condition of the course is receiving universal raves from the pros--an almost unheard of situation since the same hard-to-please players contend the 7,173-yard, par-72 track will be brutally long and difficult, due to soft fairways and serious rough.
"It'll be a long-hitter's paradise," says Fuzzy Zoeller. "That's one loooong golf course. I been lost out there since yesterday mornin' . . . You hit it in that rough and it'll make you look bad. I got in there a couple of times today and my pro-am partners started yellin', 'Rebate!' "
Almost every long hitter on the planet Earth has signed up for this $400,000 payday. Of the 35 longest drivers on tour (according to the PGA's stats), 32 are entered in this field of 154. That's an astronomical percentage.
Every muscle man and long-iron wizard, from Andy Bean to Lon Hinkle to back-from-a-bad-back Jerry Pate to super rookie Hal Sutton to Dan Pohl to Long John McComish, has seen what The Walrus has done here--lapping the field twice--and come a runnin'.
Amidst this massing of muscle, the always emotive Stadler will stand alone on center stage when play begins.
"My game is better than it was last year coming in," said Stadler, who arrived at Congressional in a horrid slump in '82, then shot 276 to win by seven. "I started getting straightened out last week.
"I'm driving well, putting good enough. The irons are getting a lot better," added Stadler, who is 18th on the money list, hasn't won a tournament this season and has missed his last two cuts. "I'd like to play here every week of the year . . . I'm not going to say I'm going to win, but I think I've got a helluva chance.
"I can't really explain why I do so well here. There's probably some mystery in it," said Stadler, who also finished second here in '80. "For instance, I love Colonial (in Fort Worth), but I've never finished better than 60th. I don't know why I play so well here and so poorly there."
Unless Stadler continues his habit of playing a different Congressional than other mortals, this Kemper may provide its first exciting logjam finish. No player comes here on a red-hot streak, though David Graham was second last week at the Memorial. The sheer difficulty of the course should bunch the field.
"I think this course is just too tough for a lot of them," says past tournament chairman Ben Brundred of the big names who aren't here. "They don't want to come here and be embarrassed . . . There isn't a helluva lot you can do to ease up this layout."
The numbers would appear to support Brundred. Of 44 PGA events in 1982, there were just eight in which only one player, or none, could shoot below 282, as was the case in the Kemper. Those eight supertough tournaments included such prestige events as the U.S. Open, Masters, TPC, Tournament of Champions and the Memorial.
By contrast, there were 30 tournaments last year in which 10 or more players broke 282, and 20 tournaments in which at least two dozen players bettered that score. In fact, in 10 tournaments more than 40 players broke 282, led by such birdie tracks as Hartford (74), Texas Open (72), Tucson (64), Quad-Cities (53), Southern Open (47), Phoenix (46) and Westchester (46).
When regular weekly tour stops like the Kemper compete for players with fancy reputations like Tom Watson, one consideration is the aggravation factor. Last year's Kemper combined high scores, complaints about sparse greens and flier lies in the fairways, plus sweatbox weather. That'll keep away folks named Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, Floyd, Irwin, Weiskopf, Palmer, Miller, Wadkins and Crenshaw. Especially when the U.S. Open, and its demands for a fresh brain, are only two weeks away.
"This course is really hard," said Kite. "That's a helluva crop of rough they've got. I hope they don't get carried away with the pin placements."
"These pros don't mind a tough course as long as it's fair by their standards. But they don't like to play a tough course when they think it's become too much a game of luck," said Marty West, six-time Maryland amateur champion.
"This is a tough course and when you throw in a reputation for some bumpy greens and flier lies, some of these guys (pros) don't have the desire to come here and fight it so close to the Open," continued West. "This year should change that reputation. This is the best condition I've seen Congressional for any of the Kempers. Today, Jack Renner told me he had nothing but good lies. The greens have a lot more grass on them now."
Only one man might be able to make the Kemper seem just as frightening to the faint-hearted millionaires in '84 as it does now. If Stadler wins again, these 484 acres of green, secluded Maryland heaven may have to be quarantined as a Walrus preserve. SCHEDULE/ADMISSION
Today: 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.--First round. $15, $22.
Friday: 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.--Second round. $15, $22.
Saturday: 9 a.m.--Third round. $15, $22.
Sunday: 9 a.m.--Final round. $15, $22.
USA Cable will televise Friday's second round on a delayed basis from 8 to 10 p.m.; CBS will televise live Saturday (3:30-4:30 p.m.) and Sunday 2:30 to conclusion or 7 p.m., whichever comes first. Tickets for the week are $60 (grounds only) and $90 (grounds and clubhouse); children's tickets (grounds only) are available for $5 daily, if child is accompanied by a paying adult.