After several false starts and weather cancellations I finally made it to Congressional Country Club to play the Blue Course. My boss lives in Bethesda so I asked him if he knew any Congressional members. He put his wife on the task and about 2 hours later I received an email from a member who graciously offered to host me. We ended up emailing for nearly 8 months before we were able to work out a day that fit both of our schedules and wasn’t raining or oppressively hot.
Congressional Country Club was founded in 1924 and has been the site of numerous championship events. The club’s storied past of tournament drama started in 1949 with the first of two USGA Amateur events to be held at the club. Since then Congressional has gone on to host a total of five USGA events including two U.S. Open Championships – 1964 when Ken Venturi, enroute to a victory, nearly died from heat exhaustion during the final round and 1997 when Ernie Els took the trophy home. The USGA has elected to return to Congressional County Club for a 6th time in 2011 for a third U.S. Open. In addition to the USGA events Congressional’s Blue Course was a regular PGA Tour stop in the 1980s for the Kemper Open and currently Tiger Woods is hosting his tournament, the AT&T National, at Congressional’s Blue Course. Anecdotally, it was Venturi’s brush with the Grim Reaper at Congressional that convinced the USGA to stop doing the 36 hole day finale and switch to a four day format for the U.S. Open.
Speaking of Tiger Woods’ tournament that is exactly what we found upon arrival at Congressional. The tournament ended on July 6th and we were there on July 8th, so the course was pretty close to tournament shape for our round. The greens had not been cut so they ran a little slower than tournament speed and the rough had been trimmed just a bit in some places, but it was still a good 4-6 inches thick. The grandstands and press boxes were even still up! Alas, the crowds must not have known that The Itinerant Golfer was on the grounds as there was nary a spectator in the seats to witness my round!
We were playing a mid-afternoon round which meant that we would be racing the thunderstorms that are so common this time of year. We met our host at the bag drop and hit the course straight from there without warming up. Standing on the first tee we debated about what set of tees we should play from and decided that the Gold tees would be sufficient for us. There was no need to beat ourselves up playing from the 7,200 yard tees the pros played from two days earlier. Our host’s father, who is a member as well, is on the greens committee so we learned a little inside scoop on the setup for the U.S. Open in 2011. Throughout the course of our round our host showed us where several new tee boxes had been or were going to be built and informed us that they were adding 300 yards to the 7,200 yard setup!!! We played from 6,800 yards which is 200 yards more than my home course and those 200 extras yards felt like it played an extra two miles. I cannot imagine playing 7,500 with all those elevation changes!
Congressional requires their guests to have a caddy so Richard, our caddy, carried 3 bags in an electric golf cart and the three of us walked. Although I detest golf carts, this is one use that I rather like them for. It is nice to be able to walk the course and not have to feel guilty about the poor caddy struggling around the course with two bags in 95 degree heat. It also is a little faster as the caddy can get to the balls and club each player a little bit quicker. The downside is that you’re more likely to be stranded, as our host was, when the caddy drove off to the back of the green and left him 40 yards out with no club in his hand!
Below is a photo of the 7th hole which is a par 3 up the hill. Note the cool Capitol building tee markers.
The 9th hole on this course is a strategic par 5. It plays 544 yards from the Gold Tees so only the really big hitters will go for it in two. The rest of us mortals will have to lay up short of the valley. As you can see in the photo below the fairway drops off and there is a valley between the end of the fairway and the green. You don’t want to be long on your layup or else you will find yourself with a downhill lie in nasty rough.
So I took the photo below from the top of the valley where my ball sat with a downhill lie in nasty rough. If only I had heeded the advice I gave above. If you make it to the bottom of the valley you still have a chance to knock it on the green, but if you are halfway down the hill like I was you are in big trouble.
Below is a photo taken from the 10th tee box which is a par 3. you can see some bunkers around the 18th green a little bit off to the right in this photo. I’ll mention more about the relationship between the 10th and 18th hole further down.
The photo below was taken from the 14th tee box. This is a 408 yard par 4 for those of us playing from the Gold Tees. The pros play it as a 454 yard par 4.
The below photo is of the 550 yard (from the Gold Tees), par 5, 16th hole taken from the tee box. One thing that really surprised me was the elevation changes at this course. I wasn’t really expecting the course to have such great topography. It really is laid out nicely amidst the rolling hills and the terrain feels very natural.
The 17th hole is another cool strategic hole. It plays 420 yards from the Gold Tees and is a par 4. There is a upper and lower fairway. If you hit through the upper fairway on your drive you will find yourself in rough again with a downhill lie. Ideally you would hit a shot that reached the end of the upper fairway and then approach the green from there. The photo below is of the lower fairway taken from the end of the upper fairway.
The 18th hole at Congressional is fairly famous for those who follow golf. In 1997 it was set up as a par 3 and there was lots of squawking about the US Open Championship ending on a par 3 hole. In 2006 Rees Jones was brought in to redesign the 18th hole. What ended up happening is that he turned what was the 18th tee box into a green and then built a new tee box on the hill below the clubhouse. The end result is that a new par 3 10th hole was created and what was the 17th hole would become the 18th, the 16th became the 17th and so on.
Below is a photo of the tee box for the 18th hole. This has got to be one of the toughest closing holes in golf. It is a par 4, 425 yarder that has a very tight drive as you can see in the photo below.
The photo below is about where an approach shot would be hit from. If you really hit your drive well it will run down the hill and you should have a reasonable shot into the green. As you can see in the photo the green is surrounded by water. All that water can really get into a players head on this shot. Its a pretty tough downhill shot to make from a downhill lie. You need to make sure you account for the downhill and pull the right club here because you absolutely cannot be long!
Here is one last photo of the 18th green as we are walking back to the clubhouse.
I really enjoyed this course and it was a very pleasant surprise. At the time I played it the ranking was #86 and I suspect that when the new rankings come out next year it will have increased dramatically. With Tiger’s tournament here and the impending U.S. Open I suspect that a lot more of the Golf Digest raters are going to be making visits to this club.
It’s always a treat to play a U.S. Open course and this one is no exception. Its hard to believe as you make your way around the course that you are just a driver and a pitching wedge away from Washington DC. There was not one place on the course where I felt any vibe of urbanization whatsoever. It is an incredibly pleasant experience and I highly recommend it.
One more thing. What would a mention of Congressional Country Club be without saying something about the clubhouse. Holy smokes, the clubhouse here was incredible . . . and huge! We ended up having an excellent dinner in the grill room and afterwards checking out the memorabilia in the hallways. Among other things, we saw the U.S. Open trophy from 1997 and a tribute to the five U.S. Presidents who have been members at Congressional. Our host also shared a few anecdotes about former President Clinton’s many golf rounds at the club, his liberal score keeping policies and some of the members reaction to his presence.
Overall, our host showed us a great time and gave us the full flavor of Congressional Country Club which was a real treat and one that I will remember as I watch the pros hacking through the rough next year during Tiger’s tournament and in the 2011 U.S. Open.