Some come to the Kemper Open to watch birdies and eagles. More folk, however, trek to Congressional Country Club each spring to see bluebirds and purple martins, giant snapping turtles and leaping trout, towering white pines and great willow oaks and perhaps even a den of foxes or a white-tailed deer.

It's become clear that a central reason the Kemper breaks its attendance record here each year is the grandeur and beauty of Congressional itself.

For those who want to see the PGA Tour's top two money winners of 1985, both Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins will be on display in today's first round.

Former Kemper champions Craig (The Walrus) Stadler, Fred Couples and Greg (The White Shark) Norman are on the prowl here, too. Brand name players Hale Irwin, Hal Sutton and Andy Bean also are on hand, as are flashy new folk like Payne Stewart, Gary Hallberg and Corey Pavin.

The 156 golfers here are good. But they're rivaled, perhaps surpassed in Washingtonians' eyes, by the grounds.

In 1987, the Kemper Open will move across Persimmon Tree Road to the new Avenel Farm Course. That will bring the adventurous new concept of stadium golf to Washington and, perhaps, attract more names like Watson and Nicklaus to this event. That's exciting.

But something will be lost, too.


Only time will tell how much of the Kemper's dramatic success here was really Congressional's appeal.

Of the 100,000-plus fans expected here this week, how many said, "Let's go to the Kemper" and how many said, "Let's go to Congressional"?

"Congressional and Avenel Farm are apples and oranges," the Kemper's tournament director, Labron Harris, said yesterday. "What they have to offer is completely different.

"There's no question Congressional has been a huge part of this event's success. You get somebody out here once and they want to come back. Advance sales are the best ever by far, again."

"This is a great golf course," said Congressional's grounds manager, Bill Black. "But it's also an arboretum, a bird sanctuary, a wildlife refuge and an estate full of flower gardens.

"We've built 100 bluebird houses and we hatch 200 bluebirds a year. They're royal blue with orange breasts.

"We've encouraged the purple martins to nest here after they winter in South America," Black said. "You can see them swooping and gliding above the golfers on the practice green."

Look in the ponds beside the sixth and 18th greens for a pair of Canada geese and their four new goslings. That sixth pond also has three- to four-pound rainbow trout that jump from the water to catch insects; the 18th pond has bass and bluegills just below the surface.

If a rabbit or squirrel bounds into the woods here, look for the hawk that's circling him. In the stream beds and ponds are painted turtles and snappers so big (40 pounds) that they have to be taken and dropped in the Potomac.

Congressional's rolling valleys full of cedars, maples, oaks, white pines and willows are a sea of counterpointing green but they can't surpass the course's flowers.

Between the fourth and fifth tee are various varieties of impatiens. The dogwoods, azaleas, rhododendrons, marigolds and red salvia all are competing these days and put Payne Stewart's pastel knickers to shame.

That den of foxes lives to the right of the sixth tee and the creek by the right side of the sixth fairway has countless animals known to Maryland, including water snakes and black snakes.

"We don't go too many ugly places on Tour," said Stadler, laughing. "But Congressional is darn pretty compared to anywhere. It's right up there. And the golf course is quite a bit tougher than most of the Tour stops."

The Kemper isn't the most dramatic sports event on the Washington calendar, but it may well be the most pleasant total experience.

As a golf tournament, the Kemper is quite nice. Veterans like Stadler and 1980 champion John Mahaffey said yesterday that the course -- criticized sometimes in the past for bumpy greens and shaggy-flyer fairways -- was in the best shape they'd ever seen.

"Can't complain" -- the benediction that Tour pros reserve for greenskeeping perfection -- was the consensus.

However, the Kemper claims unique status as a luxuriously leisurely way to spend a day or a whole weekend. With a clubhouse that resembles a castle and dining areas that offer excellent (and expensive) food, the Kemper Open can be either a puttin'-on-the-Ritz event or a casual picnic.

With partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-70s predicted for today, with sun and 80-degree heat on tap for Friday, the Kemper may escape some of the rain problems that have dogged it in past years.

So, who'll win this week?

Some might say Wadkins, who tied for the low round of the day in yesterday's pro-am with a 69 and said, "I'm finally making some putts for the first time in a while. I'm confident."

Of course, it might be Stadler, who's already finished second four times this year and said, "I'll be sad to see this event go to Avenel Farm. Congressional's been real good to me. I expect to play well here. The same guys seem to every year."

The surest winner, however, might be the fan who brings a blanket and sets up shop under a willow oak beside the sixth-green pond with a sandwich and a cool drink. That splash he sees might be a brave but injudicious wood shot struck by a pro who's trying to reach the 542-yard par-5 hole in two shots.

But it could also be a trout, a snapping turtle or a swooping purple martin.