Congressional's makeover perfect for U.S. Open

The 10th Hole of the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club as seen on Thursday, May 20, 2010 in Bethesda, Md.

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Maybe this time, they got it right.

In Washington, D.C., a city that specializes in hyping tweaks as if they were major transformations, the highest-profile golf course in town often has been subject to reform. And now, after its third closure for reconstructive surgery in the past 21 years, Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course sports a thematically unified parkland look that should hold up well in the face of the capital’s stifling summer heat, just in time for next week’s U.S. Open.

This is the third incarnation of the national championship for this sprawling course, each time with a slightly different version of the back-nine routing.

Congressional dates to a 1924 design by Devereux Emmet comprising nine holes on what is now the front nine. Emmet expanded the course to 18 holes in the early 1930s, but that nine later was split off to form part of the club’s Gold Course. The current back nine of the Blue Course was created by Robert Trent Jones in 1957.

Among the holes Jones created then was the iconic peninsula-green par 4 where Ken Venturi famously limped to victory at the 1964 U.S. Open, the last of the Open’s 36-hole Saturday finishes. That’s also the hole where Tom Lehman’s hopes for the national title went awash in 1997, hen, from the middle of the fairway, he tugged a 7-iron and splashed it left into water.

When Lehman met his demise, the hole was sequenced as the 17th, with one remaining undistinguished par 3 that played as the 18th.

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Four years ago, Rees Jones, long involved with renovations at the Blue Course, undertook a dramatic transformation of that par 3, reversing the alignment of green and tee and allowing it to play as the 10th hole, not as the finisher. The current configuration works brilliantly all around, reducing what had been a long walk from the ninth green, creating better traffic flow and allowing the club’s most memorable hole to play where it did when Venturi made it famous – as the final hole.

Befitting modern play, this par 4 has been stretched, with a new tee that’s 43 yards farther back than it played in ’97, so that it now measures a whopping 523 yards. But it plays shorter than the nominal distance because there’s a 30-foot drop from tee to green, most of it starting at a fairway tilt – or kick-point – that’s 280 yards from the back tee, propelling the ball forward and leaving approaches in the range of 170 to 210 yards for PGA Tour pros. Here and throughout Congressional, missing the fairway off the tee will leave a long, extremely difficult second shot out of thick, 4-inch-deep rough that’s a mixture of bluegrass, ryegrass and tall fescue.

Like many so-called “signature holes” today, the Blue’s 18th is totally out of character with the rest of the course, with water on three sides of the green and the front open to a low-slung run-up.

The finishing hole aside, Congressional isn’t a ground-game layout. Approaches into the greens have to be flown in under control. The putting surfaces tend to be elevated above grade and protected at the 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions with deep bunkers.

The greens, all rebuilt in 2009 to U.S. Golf Association specifications and planted in A1/A4 bentgrass, are meticulously sectioned with subtle transverse ridges, so that working the ball across a large part of the green isn’t possible. Shots to back-hole locations or holes tucked behind bunkers will need a parachute to get close. The combination of segmented surfaces and firm, fast greens means that anything hit without spin likely will veer off to the side or go long, leaving an up-and-over wedge shot for greenside recovery.

The Blue’s current configuration will be familiar to players who competed at the PGA Tour’s AT&T National held there from 2007 to ’09 and won, in succession, by Anthony Kim, K.J. Choi and Tiger Woods. Since the ’97 Open, the fairways have been narrowed, from 33 yards across to 25. The course is 361 yards longer, a 5 percent increase.

Par also has been extended to 71, with a new back tee on the sixth hole stretching it into a 555-yard par 5. Back in ’97, it played as a long par 4 and was the hardest hole on the course (4.53 scoring average), thanks to a green protected on the front and right by water and designed for short irons rather than long ones. As a par 5, it will provide considerably more excitement.

Unlike in recent U.S. Opens, there’s no hole at Congressional that will be set up as a drivable, risk/reward par 4. Mike Davis, who championed the cause of reachable par 4s in recent U.S. Opens before he became USGA executive director this year, said that although the course doesn’t set up well for such a tempting par 4, “the drama of such risk-taking will be evident in the trio of par 5s.”

At the 636-yard ninth hole, for example, few players risk going for the green in two, preferring to lay back short of a yawning chasm short of the green. But Davis said he envisions using more forward, intermediate tees to make this hole more tempting. And on the 579-yard 16th, a new chipping area behind the green will encourage strong players to have a go at this elevated putting surface on their second shots. Unlike in ’97, there’s now a chance of recovery from what used to be unplayable ground.

Congressional’s Blue Course is a workmanlike track, demanding off the tee and requiring strong, crisply struck approach shots. It’s very much a parkland layout, less of an aesthetic joy than a steady, unrelenting test.

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2011 U.S. Open: About Congressional

Congressional's makeover: Brad Klein says updates to Blue Course are a good fit for U.S. Open.

Inside Congressional: From 36 holes of great golf to the clubhouse, an inside look.

Congressional, hole-by-hole: A breakdown of the layout.

Quick facts: Details and things you need to know about Congressional.

Photos: A look at Congressional, in pictures

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2011 U.S. Open: Tournament preview

The full field: See who made the U.S. Open and how they did it.

Tee times and early-round pairings: World's top three players will play together

2011 U.S. Open preview: Tom Lehman's pain relief

Epic battle of 1931: George Von Elm and Billy Burke went 72 holes in a playoff that redefined our national championship.

Defining victory: Ken Venturi was down-and-out heading into the 1964 Open. His unlikely victory turned it all around.

Celebrating anniversaries: Revisiting memorable U.S. Open moments that celebrate an anniversary this year.

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