When the Kemper Open came to Congressional Country Club in 1980, no one knew whether Washington would take to pro golf on an annual basis. The U.S. Open in 1964 and the PGA Championship in 1976 hit town with a bang, but those were glamorous major events. Who wouldn't love 'em? But would a run-of-the-mill tour stop, even one played on a classic course, be enough to attract and hold the affection of a great world capital? What if Jack and Tom and Lee didn't come to the party?
Now, as the Kemper is about to be played at Congressional for the last time, the verdict is in. For six years, the PGA Tour has put a fairly representative sampling of its wares on the table and, every year, the Kemper has been more warmly received. Whatever its reputation in other sports, Washington is a big-league golf town.
Next season, the Kemper will move across Persimmon Tree Road to Avenel, the new and permanent stadium-course home of the $500,000 shindig. Avenel opened yesterday, three months ahead of schedule, and the hilly, wooded, graciously sprawling track shows great promise. Some holes on this course, the first designed by Ed Sneed, evoke Augusta National -- which is aiming high -- while the whole layout promises a marvelous range of shotmaking challenges.
No matter how successful Avenel becomes, it will be tough to surpass the nostalgic warmth people already feel for the Kempers that have been held at Congressional.
Some said that trendy Washington would not get excited about a PGA tournament unless Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson or Lee Trevino dominated the leader board. What if the weather turned wet or some unknown player took an early lead and lapped the field? What if unknowns should win?
To some degree, all those awful things came to pass. Yet, each year, crowds grew, enthusiasm increased and the Kemper's hold on the community strengthened until it became one of the town's sports institutions.
Perhaps, in time, we will look back and say that the Kemper's success was really Congressional's success. Maybe Washington just discovered how lush and delightful spring days can be when you meander through the immaculate and sometimes stunning parkland of one of America's most exclusive private clubs. Maybe we're talking snob appeal here.
But it hasn't felt that way.
Washington is a sophisticated golf town with one of the highest course-per-capita ratios in the nation. Perhaps no other city has more quality public courses or a broader base of knowledgeable support. If you really knew your golf, then the Kemper was a consistent delight.
Remember the Coming of the Walrus in '81? Followed by the Return of the Walrus in '82? When Craig Stadler first won here, he was a fat guy with droopy pants, a rusty mustache and a temper like an incinerator. By the time he won again, he was the reigning Masters champion and had become one of the game's dozen or so best-known players. He was also one of its more endearingly colorful players, in a Joe the Bartender way.
The way Washington stayed with the Kemper after Stadler's victories was a kind of acid test. Why? Because those two tournaments (on the heels of John Mahaffey's three-stroke win in 1980) were as dull, boring, devoid of drama and utterly anticlimactic as pro golf gets. If the town could enjoy those two Walrus snoozes -- wins by six and seven shots -- then it was obvious that the spectacle and an innate love of the sport was what was selling tickets.
Since then, a lot more sparks have flown. Remember the infamous, ludicrous, historic five-way playoff of 1983? That's when the final-round threesome of Fred Couples, T.C. Chen and Scott Simpson went into a six-hour coma, playing some of the worst and slowest golf on record. By the time all three had choked away their chances in regulation, Dr. Gil Morgan had to go fetch his clubs out of the trunk of his car for the cavalry-stampede playoff and free-spirited Barry Jaeckel had to be retrieved from the bar.
Who can forget that week's wonderful final scene as Deborah Morgan Couples dashed through a sand trap and gave the victory kiss to her new hubby? "Way to go, babycakes. I love ya."
As its contribution to Kemper lore, the 1984 event offered us the first American sighting of The Great White Shark -- Greg Norman of Australia. Just as Stadler's Kemper win had been a harbinger, so Norman emerged as a top Tour player immediately after surviving Congressional.
All that was left was for a miraculous shot to go in the hole on the final green to win the tournament for a young struggling unknown who also happened to be a nice human-interest story with a local angle.
So, last year, Bill Glasson sank a preposterous 50-foot putt on the 72nd hole for his first Tour victory. Naturally, he was a handsome young blond slugger with a gimpy knee from triple surgery. "If you'd told me I had to make it to win, I'd have hit it in the lake . . . I was seriously choking," said the candid, humble Glasson, who had been living in the Washington area with a Congressional member as he tried to crack the Tour life.
Kemper hasn't just provided some classy winners, as well as two of the most bizarre endings in recent Tour history. Almost every round has offered its sidelights of interest. Don't forget the day Jack Nicklaus went out in 30, making him the only person ever to go six under par for nine holes at Congressional. Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Weiskopf may not have won here, but they were all runners-up and left a small mark, too.
This week, the long hitters will gather again on this brutal slugger's track. It will mark the end of a short but most pleasant era in Washington golf history. In time, greater names and greater deeds, bigger crowds and bigger purses, may grace Avenel than ever distinguished Congressional.
But that won't change the fact that Washington became a thriving fixture in the pro golf world during the seven seasons that the phrase "Kemper at Congressional" became synonymous with easy pleasures in a glorious place.