Pick a superlative and chances are that any PGA Tour player on the pretty premises at Congressional Country Club has already used it to describe the lush, tree-lined venue for this week's Booz Allen Classic.

"Amazing," Sergio Garcia said.

"What a wonderful golf course," Phil Mickelson gushed.

"Best we've played this year," added Jay Williamson.

Play begins this morning off the first and 10th tees on a classic golf course that has attracted a world-class field worthy of its reputation among the country's finest designs.

Who needs Tiger Woods when the game's No. 1 player, Vijay Singh, heads the list of 156 players, including eight of the top 10 in the world, vying for a title that will pay $900,000 to the champion, with a tournament-record purse of $5 million? Woods will be preparing for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst next week, but most of his peers have opted to hone their games under major championship conditions here this week.

Three-time major champion Ernie Els should be considered the semi-defending champion. He won the 1997 U.S. Open, the last time a tour event was played at Congressional, shooting a final round of 69 and a 4-under-par total of 276 over the 7,205 yards that was the longest course in Open history. This week, it will measure 7,232 and play to a par of 71.

Adam Scott, the 24-year-old Australian being taught by Woods's former swing instructor Butch Harmon, is the defending champion, holding off Charles Howell III down the stretch a year ago when the tournament was played at its usual location, the TPC at Avenel just across Persimmon Tree Road. When the Booz Allen returns to Avenel next year, it will have the considerably less desirable schedule slot of the week after the Open, but tournament officials hope this week's event will generate enough goodwill to attract a decent field next year.

"Our strategy is to give them as much kindness as we can," said Steve Lesnik, CEO of Chicago-based Kemper Sports Management, which runs the tournament. "We have the opportunity to build relationships with some players we haven't seen here in a few years and hope they will come back. When we do get the improved venue at Avenel, we think they will come back."

The two courses have little in common. Avenel, opened in 1987, is still essentially in its infancy and about to undergo a significant renovation. Congressional has been part of the local landscape since 1924, when two Indiana congressmen decided to build a golf course in what was then considered a far-out suburb. Ken Venturi won the 1964 Open on these grounds, and Dave Stockton took the 1976 PGA title on the course that will host the 2011 U.S. Open.

"This is a very demanding golf course," said Mickelson, who tied for 43rd place in the '97 Open. "The fairways are a little tighter [than Avenel], the greens are much more difficult putting because of the subtleties [in their contour]. The combination of having to drive the ball straighter as well as having to play certain sections of the greens makes it maybe a little more challenging.

"I know everyone is excited about playing here and getting ready for next week's Open. I would say it's a great tuneup. It just feels like a major set-up already."

Players will not face the sort of strangling 51/2-inch rough they encountered here eight summers ago, when virtually any ball hit in the primary rough could only be hacked out onto the fairway with a lofted club. The four-inch rough has been a tad more forgiving in the practice rounds this week but could become far more challenging during the weekend.

"It's getting thicker out there by the minute with this heat and the rain we've had," said South Africa's Retief Goosen, who will defend his U.S. Open title next week at Pinehurst. "Even now, you hit it in the rough, you don't have much chance of getting it on the green. . . . The greens are very tough, driving is difficult. It's playing long. It's really a major championship golf course."

Because fairways were softened by rain earlier this week, the big hitters in the field -- Singh, Mickelson, Els, among others -- should have a decided advantage.

"If you win on a course like this, you played good golf, period," said Chris DiMarco, second in the last two major championships. "There's no gimmicks out there. It's straight ahead of you. You hit it in the fairway, you got a chance for birdie. If you miss fairways, you're going to be struggling. This is not a course where you want to short side yourself, either. You can hit it on the wrong side of the hole here, and you can be out there for a long time. It's one of those courses where you have to think your way around."

Though Congressional and Pinehurst also offer contrasting styles in Open venues, most players believe playing here will help them in North Carolina.

"It's a great test for next week," DiMarco said. "Hitting long irons in. The only thing is the greens are soft and the fairways are soft and you're not going to see that at Pinehurst. That's the only downside. Hopefully we get no more rain, and it gets hard and firm by the weekend."

Ernie Els, who has won three majors, accommodates the waiting line of autograph seekers after he finishes up at yesterday's Booz Allen Pro-Am.