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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Congressional Members Identify With U. S. Open

Why would a private country club give up the use of their golf course in order to host a major golf event? The amount of infrastructure that converges on a club to pull off an event such as a U. S. Open is monumental. In addition, the constant changes a perpetual major host goes through can quickly erase any original design character the golf course had that attracted an organization like the USGA to begin with.

I had the luxury of playing the Lower course at Baltusrol Golf Club last summer, no stranger to major championship play (seven Opens and one PGA to date) and was really taken aback by the design narrative of the golf course. It seemed that every change was not necessarily made for the course’s sake but more for the next major coming to town, “We added this bunker here for the 1993 Open”, “The fairway was brought closer to the creek in preparation for the 2006 PGA”.

Of course, there is the down time of not just the event week but the years of preparation and planning as well as clean up that can take the golf course away from the members for practically a whole month. I often wonder what possible incentive the club may have to go through the effort.

In a few weeks, Congressional Country Club will be hosting its third men’s U. S. Open. It has been fourteen fast-moving years since Ernie Els fended off Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman on the final stretch to win his second Open and seven years since the club agreed to host the Open again later this month.

I asked Congressional Club President, Doug Schleifer, what prompted the club to undertake such an effort once again and he responded, “Hosting major championships is part of our mission statement. Hosting major championships is certainly a big part of our history, and our culture. We are proud of the role Congressional has played in keeping professional golf in the DC metro area over the years.” That seems to explain a lot for other clubs as well like the aforementioned Baltusrol or others like Olympic and Oakland Hills.

Personally, I would think that such a prominent club would be proud of its own identity to the extent that it wouldn’t rely on the reputation forged from an outside event, even if it is the U. S. Open. But then again, to be a part of golf history is truly a gift that cements a club’s notoriety. We will forever link Ken Venturi’s struggle through the heat in 1964 with Congressional and the prompting to move the final round to Sundays as a result. Congressional will always have that historical identity.

So the obvious answer to why host another Open comes from Congressional’s own mission statement. As a result, the sacrifices may seem small to the members. In fact, when the club voted to accept the USGA’s invite to host this year’s Open, 84% overwhelmingly voted in favor. Those opposed “indicated that they prefer the normal operating environment of the club, with no interference of their ability to enjoy their club,” according to Mr. Schleifer.

When I played the course during media day on May 9th, the grandstands (seating for 14,000) were already in place around each hole and the hospitality tent ‘city’ was well under construction. There is a cottage industry to the whole process as specific companies are in charge of such specific construction and come in each year to do their handiwork. A friend of mine has painted the Open grandstands for many consecutive years, traveling from Pinehurst for two separate weeks each spring to get the job done.

In the process, the club has lost use of half of its Gold Course (the Blue will host the actual event) to make way for the hospitality tents, media center and compound, and various other structures for almost two months prior to the start of play. The damage is more pronounced on the ancillary facilities than what the pros will inflict on the Blue Course the week of play. Surprisingly, the Blue will be available the immediate Wednesday following the event’s conclusion. It will take weeks before everything gets back to normal on the Gold, though.

One interesting benefit the club derives from the Open is the event will enhance its golf course ranking, a very important identifier for Congressional, which sees itself as a proud perennial top-fifty golf course. The reason most cited for the surge in popularity is the publicity the club gains through such events as media day and the tournament itself, attracting ranking panelists and writers alike who typically do not recognize Congressional in their daily activities.

This exposure makes one think that rankings may be based more on reputation than the actual golf course and question whether changes that are made for the tournament are truly the best for the members. Schliefer points out that the changes made for this Open (which included re-construction of all eighteen greens) were made specifically with making the golf course play faster and firmer than in years past.

Rebuilding greens to promote less water usage and improving drainage to create firmer conditions are good moves regardless of the impetus for those improvements. Yet to see these changes being made for a U. S. Open is a sign that our nation’s governing golf body sees a return to sound golf maintenance practices to promote a ground game as more important than past practices of growing things high and wet in order to bore the professional golfer into a ‘defense-first’ strategy.

But don’t think that the club didn’t take the opportunity to narrow fairways, add length, and grow taller grass in key rough locations. At this point in the game, that is the only defense a golf course has against the professional. Luckily for the member all those changes are temporary in nature. Whether the club reverts back to a more playable course after the Open ends, will remain to be seen. According to Schleifer, that decision is still up in the air.

As part of the greens renovation, golf course architect Rees Jones created many fairway-height chipping areas around the greens to challenge the golfer’s course management. It was here in 1997 when I first saw a chipping area behind the old sixteen green (now seventeen) and Jones’ efforts have been expanded to many more areas for 2011. Gone are the days where blasting out of knee-high rough is the only play from three feet off the putting surface.

In just a few weeks, the golfing world will return to Congressional and find a similar layout to 1997, but one that has a little more character, character that will hopefully remain with the club for years to come and distinguish it from past Open venues built on nothing but heavy rough.

About Richard: Richard Mandell runs Richard Mandell Golf Architecture in Pinehurst, North Carolina ( Educated as a Landscape Architect at the University of Georgia (he is licensed in both North and South Carolina), Richard has close to two decades’ experience in designing new golf courses and renovating existing ones. Richard may also be the only golf architect in the world who is a certified arborist. He co-hosts a weekly golf radio talk show in Pinehurst and continues to teach a class on Golf Architecture at North Carolina State University which he started in 1997. Mr. Mandell also wrote the award-winning book, Pinehurst ~ Home of American Golf - The Evolution of a Legend (International Network of Golf Book of the Year – 2007).

Richard Mandell has been a Golf Content Creator for the Washington Times Communities since October 20, 2008

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