One dream unites all golfers more than the phantom of breaking par. One fantasy is closer to the heart and further from reality than any other.
No, not winning the Masters.
We speak here of the noble task of creating a great golf course.
Ed Sneed came within one five-foot putt of winning his Masters six springs ago. Now, he's got a chance for a more lasting monument. He's the man shaping the strategic design of the course at Avenel Farm just across the road from Congressional Country Club, which it will replace as the Kemper Open's home in 1987.
Once a week, Sneed comes to Washington and lives out the wish of so many of his peers. Beside Persimmon Tree Road lie 250 acres of stately, rolling countryside worthy of an English manor. Or a golf course that Tour Commissioner Deane Beman says "will be as pretty as any you've ever seen anywhere."
Next time you hear hallowed names like Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Oakmont, Firestone, Oak Hill, Aronomink, Merion, Pine Valley, Muirfield, Shinnicock Hills and Congressional, which conjure up the best in golf east of the Mississippi and north of Virginia, then try out the name Avenel, as well. It'll get there if the troika of Beman, builder Eddie Ault and Sneed has its way.
Sneed puts on his jeans, sneakers and tractor cap and heads out in a battered old pickup truck to transform a farm into a fantasy.
Make it beautiful. Make it 7,000 yards long and tough, but playable -- a strategic position course rather than a ball-gobbling, punitive one. Make it a stadium course where thousands of fans can follow the flow of tournament play. And above all, make it exciting and controversial; make it a conversation piece. Those were the basic marching orders.
Avenel Farm still has some cattle and horses, even one Brahma bull. It still has a little old woman with her easel by the road painting a pastoral.
But it also has earthmovers and dozers. And enough dust to film another "Desert Fox." These are the last few weeks when a famous course of the future still has a wilderness look. This is the very end of the "before" stage and "afterward" isn't far away.
Grass goes on the fairways in June and the course should be playable by fall of '86. In fact, on May 23, Avenel Farm is holding The First Annual and Only Dirt Un-Open, a four-way captain's choice scramble tournament for prospective members using 12-inch cups and allowing tees for every shot.
To get to what Beman calls "this huge canvas laid out on an unbelievably enormous scale," you take River Road to Bradley Boulevard, turn south to Persimmon Tree, take a right, then look fast for the old Avenel Farm pillars on the left. It's back in there for the finding, nearly deserted and worth the search, especially if, like many, you've daydreamed about what Pinehurst or Augusta looked like before man (for a change) improved on nature.
Sneed, who is 40 and has won nearly a million dollars on golf courses, sees Avenel Farm and thinks he can put about 25 years' worth of good ideas in one spot.
"The Tour has too many dull rounds," says Sneed as he bounces his truck over gullies and up blind hills that end abruptly in small cliffs. "Too many players come in and say, 'I had two birdies, one bogey, shot (yawn) 71.' That's boring. I'd rather have the same player come in excited and say, 'I had six birdies, five bogeys and shot a helluva 71.' "
To this end, Sneed is in the process of building the sort of course seldom seen outside of Scotland -- one where the "total par" for the course makes perfect sense, but where very few holes really have any true par.
"We want holes that are natural to the land and exciting for the fans . . . If 'par' for that hole happens to be 2 1/2, 3 1/2, 4 1/2 or 5 1/2, I don't care. A whole course needs par, but I've never understood why every hole needs it."
How about a 610-yard par 5 into prevailing breezes that maybe, just maybe, someone like Fuzzy Zoeller will reach in two shots someday?
How about a 300-yard par 4 with nothing preventing a big hitter from driving the green, if he isn't bothered by all that jungle if he strays a few feet to the right of plumb?
How about a couple of par 5s that are almost mirror images of the famous 13th and 15th holes at Augusta National -- holes that nearly demand a contender gamble for the green as Curtis Strange did, disastrously, at the 1985 Masters?
How about four par 3s that demand totally different shots? A 135-yarder to a tiny, water-guarded green where you'll either be putting for birdie or scrambling to escape bogey. A 165-yarder from a mountainous tee with a panoramic view down a half-mile tunnel of trees. A 195-yard test for the strong iron player and, finally, a totally unfair 245-yard beast that even Sneed admits is no par 3 at all. Tee-hee.
As if that isn't enough, let's throw in another baby par 4 of 330 yards that is a must-birdie hole and a pair of 465-yard par 4s that force almost as many bogeys as pars.
What Sneed hates is "I hit the fairway, hit the green, two putts, par." What he wants is lots of birdies.
"Too many of the courses we play don't allow us to show what makes us special -- the ability to execute great shots and make birdies," Sneed says. "Some year, when the weather is perfect, I'd be surprised if the winner didn't shoot 14 or 15 under par. That doesn't insult me.
"You can pick your spots out here, but if you want to win, sooner or later, you've got to gamble. There are a lot of (par) 4 1/2s out here, just like at Augusta, and you better make a lot of 4s and a couple of 3s on them. That means you have to try some dangerous shots."
Like Augusta (but unlike some new punitive courses, such as the Players Club outside Jacksonville), Sneed wants the 80, 90 or 100 shooter to be able to play his course, and remain sane.
Avenel most likely will offer associate memberships to the public at a $1,500 to $2,500 initiation fee (not including dues and greens fees) -- about one-tenth the initial cost of a top country club.
"At too many new courses," says Sneed, "the average player steps to the tee and has no shot. There's no way for him to make a dignified bogey. Every hole out here will have a smart, safe way to play. You'll be able to bounce the ball onto almost every green. No pro would want to, but that choice will be there for the high handicapper."
As cheerful as Beman and Sneed are on their frequent visits to Avenel -- "it feels like my own baby," says Beman -- they also sense some pressure.
Seldom has a course had so few excuses not to be great.
With a $7-$8 million budget and the resources of the PGA Tour behind it, Avenel should actually be prettier than Congressional. The land's as good, the stadium idea is inherently sound and, frankly, Congressional, like Firestone, tends to be monotonous. Avenel won't have CCC's clubhouse, but who does? With time and landscaping, Avenel should be an even lovelier layout.
The Avenel course is part of a legally required "buffer zone" surrounding 220 acres of undeveloped property (which may someday be a scentless waste disposal facility). A group of Potomac residents has filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court to challenge the density of housing to be built around the course. Still, the new course may feel more spacious than any in the country -- even Augusta.
While almost every new course in America feels cramped, Avenel, because of that vast central acreage which can never be developed, has a profligate 19th Century sense of land to squander.
All that empty parkland at the core will also, Beman says, provide "the finest parking anywhere." The traffic snarl and parking fiasco that leaves Potomac folk growling during and after Kemper week should be much relieved.
Beman may even end up solving this area's grass problem.
"From St. Louis to Washington is the most difficult grass-growing region in the world," says the commissioner, who grew up here. "Nothing works really well. Bermuda fairways die of winter kill about every fourth year and then you're up the creek. We're going to use zoysia (grass) in the fairways and bent grass on the greens. Zoysia has always been too thatchy and thick, but now we have hydraulically run mowers and you can cut it to putting height, if you want.
"Zoysia gets green 30 to 45 days sooner and stays green 30 days longer. It takes no fertilizer and little water. In the long run, it's inexpensive and ecologically attractive because it saves water. And water will someday be the biggest problem golf courses face.
"If it works as well as I think it will, it will set a standard for every course in D.C."
As long as Potomac Investment Associates, which is building more than 500 acres of homes on the vast Avenel site, does not blight the course with condos near greens and homes that abut fairways, all should be well.
Maybe, in a couple of years, Avenel will have too many parked cars and condos in view to be the show-stopping prize Beman first envisioned. Maybe all that open space will look bleak, not panoramic. Maybe the clubhouse (pegged for 40 percent of the total course budget) will look ricky-ticky when we recall Congressional's majesty. Maybe zoysia won't be as good as advertised. Maybe Sneed's novel ideas about par will seem more goofy than exciting.
But that's not how it seems now.
"This is going to be the ultimate stadium golf course," says Beman, who wants to leave something to his home town comparable to what Bob Jones left Augusta and what Jack Nicklaus has built at Muirfield Village outside Columbus, Ohio.
If Beman's baby proceeds as smoothly in the next two years as it has in its first year, then all The Players Club at Avenel Farm may need by June of 1987 is a better name.
Much better. Something to compete on the tongue with Cherry Hills and Canterbury, Bellerive and Interlachen.
Why not "See you at Persimmon Tree?"