Politics not the only game in town at Congressional

The 18th hole at Lake Presidential

The 18th hole at Lake Presidential

The first nine holes of the Blue Course at East Potomac Park opened in 1921, the same year that Congressional Country Club – which is hosting this week’s U.S. Open on its own, somewhat more famous Blue Course – was incorporated. East Potomac’s Blue was designed by Walter Travis, whose work, like that of Devereux Emmet, the architect of Congressional’s Blue, always has been undervalued by historians.

That’s where the similarities end.

East Potomac Park is near the seat of power – the Washington Monument is the target line for several holes – but Congressional is where the power brokers actually convene. During the decade when I lived nearby, in Alexandria, Va., I never played at East Potomac Park. To the charge of being a golf snob, I plead guilty, Your Honor. But for all of its faults, or perhaps because of them, it’s East Potomac’s Blue, not Congressional’s, that is the quintessential Washington golf experience. 

East Potomac draws an eclectic clientele, such as Mike Harrington, an Irish businessman who used a cross-handed grip that he learned playing hurling while growing up in County Cork. Some players arrive in dress slacks and button-down shirts, others in T-shirts and sneakers. And bureaucracy is celebrated here.

“This is a national park, and you can see we have lots of rules,” the cheerful starter said, pointing to a lengthy list on the wall behind him. 

The Blue Course’s tee boxes are spotty, the greens a bit shaggy, and the bunkers don’t appear to have been raked since Bush 41 was in office. It’s hardly peaceful given the frequent howl of sirens, planes coming and going from Reagan National just across the Potomac River from the par-5 12th hole and helicopters buzzing around the Pentagon, on the other side of the parking lot that is Interstate 395. The grounds crew was still mowing at 2 p.m. as we made the turn, and it apparently never occurred to the driver of the sanitation truck to let us hit our drives on No. 15 before he roared up to the Port-O-Let next to the tee box. 

Late in the round, Mike still was shaking his head at having been charged a second green fee just so his wife – Vereena, a South African who was wearing flip-flops and seemed horrified at the mere thought of swinging a golf club – could ride along with him.

In short, East Potomac is precisely the sort of golf course one would expect the federal government to operate.  

But none of that mattered thanks to the serendipitous pairing with Mike and Vereena – and the fact that I was allowed to walk, which hasn’t yet been forbidden by the rulesmakers. If it sounds trite, it’s also true: The day was a reminder that the game is less about the places you play than the people with whom you share the experiences. In that regard, I couldn’t have been more fortunate.

Mike, Vereena and I swapped stories about our travels; I thought I had put a lot of miles on my passport until Mike shared some of his globetrotting tales. I tried Mike’s cross-handed grip, and he tried a conventional grip, both with predictably disastrous results. And we agreed to reconnect for another round if we ever found ourselves in the same city.

• • •

Washington is the land that the recession forgot. Of the nation’s 10 U.S. jurisdictions with the highest median household income, five are located in the D.C. suburbs. That’s attributable, in large part, to the fact that Washington is America’s largest pork-barrel project, the lard oozing down from Capitol Hill into the sclerotic arteries of this perpetually traffic-choked city. 

If you wend your way east out of Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue, single-file past the line of orange traffic barrels, then veer north on Route 301 just outside the Beltway, you’ll soon arrive at the very Capitol-istic sounding Lake Presidential Golf Club in Upper Marlboro, Md. This semi-private layout was developed by Gerald Barton, who probably is the man most responsible – or culpable, depending on your point of view – for raising the stature of Pete Dye, who designed 17 courses for Barton’s Landmark Land Co. Jeff Potts, a former Dye associate, scored the plum assignment to build Lake Presidential. 

The rolling terrain, mature trees and wetlands create a distinctive mix of holes. The playful tabletop green on No. 11 might remind some of the second on Kiawah’s Ocean Course. There are some memorably difficult holes at Lake Presidential, but happily, it ends on a lighter note: the semi-Redan 16th, the delightfully drivable 17th and the par-5 18th. Appropriately, 3-year-old Lake Presidential sits at No. 3 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Maryland list.

The newest course in the D.C. area is the 1757 Golf Club in Sterling, Va., near Dulles Airport. When I arrived on a Thursday for a midafternoon tee time, a 144-person corporate outing was nearing completion, and a small army of attendants whisked the carts back to the barn with something

approaching military precision. The parking lot was full, as were the mats on one side of the practice facility and the turf range near the first tee. 

The 1757 routing – the name references the year that Loudoun County was established – is as convoluted as the nearby “Mixing Bowl” highway interchange in Springfield, and the clubhouse has all of the architectural charms of an outlet mall. Add the fact that there is water in play on 14 holes – it only seems like there’s water on all 18 holes – and this is one of the more stressful 6,600-yard layouts you’re likely to encounter. But the course is impeccably maintained, and there is a TPC-caliber practice facility and dedicated short-game area where some quality time is definitely in order.

• • •

For all of Washington’s excesses, there is only one golf resort in the metropolitan area. Since opening 20 years ago, Lansdowne Resort has been racking up AAA Four Diamond honors as reliably as the federal government runs a deficit. 

Golfers must stay to play, an agreeable requirement given that Lansdowne ticks off all of the amenity boxes. It has two starkly different 18-hole layouts and a nine-hole executive course, five pools, a 13-room spa and an exceedingly well-equipped fitness facility. It’s almost enough to make the $20 daily resort fee for the “free” health club access and WiFi service seem palatable.

A map of Lansdowne’s Norman Course is reminiscent of satellite images of Earth – the ones where you realize that water covers most of the surface. Much of Greg Norman’s 6-year-old layout runs parallel to the Potomac River, and its pristine conditioning was impressive in light

of the fact that it had been closed because of flooding only six days before my arrival. The Norman Course is commonly referred to as a target layout, but it’s relatively generous off the tee. Many second shots, however, are made hairy by the ever-present wetlands. Greens are perched above the flood plain, with tightly mown aprons that create some thought-provoking short-game decisions.

A day after playing the Norman Course, I had a completely different experience on Lansdowne’s Jones Course. I was joined there by an old friend, Joe, and his colleague, Chris. Joe is the culprit who convinced me to take up golf a couple of decades ago. (I’ve since forgiven him.) In the interim, he became a hotshot White House reporter, chasing Bush 43 across 67 countries before parachuting into a cushy desk job with one of the political world’s must-read websites. 

If Al Geiberger is golf’s Mr. 59, Joe is Mr. 84, owing to the fact that he is mystically predetermined to shoot 84 no matter how well or how poorly he plays. Though the result is preordained, his method of getting there never has failed to entertain. 

The same, with one exception, can be said for the Jones Course. After easing into the round on the relatively benign front nine, all hell broke loose on the back side. The fabulous 12th, the length of which is split by a creek, is hands down the best single hole at the resort, and the par-3 13th might as well be dubbed “Black Widow” given its combination of beauty and lethality. The good times rolled on until we reached the 18th, which has the requisite closing-hole difficulty, but also feels as if it was shoehorned into the side of a hill behind the practice range.

It is, in the scheme of things, a minor flaw. After all, the last time Congressional hosted the Open, it ended on a nondescript par 3.

• • •

The courses 

Listed are weekday/weekend rates:

East Potomac Park (Blue Course): golfdc.com; 202-554-7660 ($27)

Lake Presidential: lakepresidential.com; 301-627-8577 ($79/$99)

Lansdowne Resort: lansdowneresort.com; 703-729-8400 (golf packages start at $299 per night)

1757 Golf Club: 1757golfclub.com; 703-444-0901 ($65/$95)

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