Congo Ready for Golf’s Ultimate Challenge

Congo. Located just 10 minutes north of the White House.

Congo. Where a raft of former U.S. presidents, including Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower and Ford were members.

Congo. Where the heat in late June nearly melted a man in 1964.

Congo, of course, is in Bethesda, Maryland not equatorial Africa. It’s the affectionate local nickname for Congressional Country Club, which will welcome the U.S. Open for the third time in its history this week.

The competition will be held on the club’s Blue Course, at 7,574 yards (par 71), one of the longest tracks in U.S. Open history (only Torrey Pines in 2008 was longer). A very strong field (minus Tiger) will face a superb parkland test that has evolved considerably over the decades.

Originally designed by Devereux Emmet in 1924, the Blue Course was heavily revised by Robert Trent Jones in 1959. This was the course Ken Venturi trudged around in sweltering heat en route to his hard-earned U.S. Open victory in 1964.

The Blue Course was completely renovated in 1989 by Rees Jones, who rebuilt all the greens, bunkers and other significant features. It was on this version of the venue, which concluded with a controversial par 3, that Ernie Els edged Colin Montgomerie for the U.S. Open title in 1997.

In preparation for the 2011 U.S. Open, Rees Jones rebuilt all the greens to USGA specifications, regraded nine fairways, added several new championship tees and completely reconfigured the back nine. While the original corridors have for the most part been retained, the revised and expanded layout will present an entirely new array of challenges.

Jones predicted that the hilly, tree-lined course will prove to be “fair but demanding,” noting that the well-defended greens have subtle yet distinct terraces that call for accurate approach shots. A difficult recovery awaits those who miss on the short side of the greens, all of which were rebuilt to provide firm, consistent putting surfaces that will run 14 or faster on the Stimpmeter.

While the sixth hole has been converted to a “reachable” 558-yard par 5 (it played as a par 4 during the 1997 U.S. Open), the most significant course changes have been made at the 10th and 18th holes. Their order has been reversed, and each hole is entirely new.

To accommodate revisions proposed by the USGA, Jones built a new par-three 10th hole on the location of the original 18th. From 218 yards, the elevated tee gives players a sweeping view of a green that juts into a lake and is protected by bunkers on its right and rear flanks.

Congressional’s new 18th hole is now a massive 521-yard par 4 that tumbles downhill to a peninsula green angled into a pond. “The green ties directly into the existing fairway grade so that running shots can roll onto the putting surface,” Jones explained. “Players who fear the water at the left and rear of the green can lay up short. Creating a new back tee enabled us to add 50 yards to the hole.”

It’s just a hunch, but expect the national championship to be decided on Congo’s dramatic closer. This so-called par 4, longer than five football fields, will test brains and brawn in equal measure. Discretion may be the better part of valor come Sunday.


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