BETHESDA, Md. – It doesn’t take much of a detective to work out the origins of a place with a name like Congressional Country Club. Nor is it hard to realize what it has become today – a prestigious, must-play destination for the world’s top golfers, who will reconvene at the splendid but often unforgiving Blue Course for next week’s U.S. Open.
In between, however, the 580 dazzling acres near the U.S. capital have a vibrant history that hasn’t always gone according to script. The bunkers – not the kind made of sand – are left over from the 1940s, when the club was leased to the Office of Strategic Services as a World War II training ground. Fairways became target ranges and craters marred the course.
It’s easy to say the club was doing its bit of sacrifice in the name of noble service for its country, but actually the country was saving the club. The OSS – predecessor to the CIA – paid $4,000 per month to rent the place.
“Having gone through the Depression years of the ’30s, the club was in serious financial trouble at that time,” Brundred said, “and was probably on the verge of perhaps having to shut the doors, when the opportunity to lease the property to the OSS came along. It was being able to shut the doors and not have any expenses during those years and to put some money in the bank that allowed the club to sort of regroup.”
Money woes didn’t seem possible when Congressional was founded during the Roaring ’20s, the brainchild of two Indiana congressman who envisioned an idyllic setting for politicians and businessmen to recharge their psychological batteries while contemplating the world’s problems. Oscar Bland and O.R. Lubring wanted a place “where talk has no fetters and where exchanged opinion leads to clarity,” according to a 1921 prospectus.
“The official or member of Congress, brain cleared by the bracing air, and exhilarated by the play in which he is engaged, finds a new and more adequate conception of his problems of government; and from his contact with minds that know the nation’s needs, develops more surely the solutions essential for America’s well being,” the prospectus continued.
Five former American presidents – Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge – are listed as founding life members. The opening gala in 1924 at the stylish clubhouse with its Mediterranean-style architecture was a grand occasion, but for many years Congressional was too lavish for its budget, particularly during the lean years before the war. Its remote location and lack of local dues-paying members posed problems.
Back on firm footing after the war, Congressional became less of a course for men in power and more of a conventional, exclusive country club for members and their families.
It was also during the postwar era that Congressional realized it could become a place of champions. Renowned designer Robert Trent Jones was hired to overhaul the back nine of the Blue Course in the 1950s and later did the same to the front nine, a much-needed update to Devereux Emmet’s original setup from the 1920s. Jones’ son, Rees Jones, was called on to do another renovation in the late 1980s.
“When I was on the board and we were getting ready to redo the Blue Course,” said Enos Fry, another former club president, “I can remember some of the past presidents coming up to me saying, ‘You’re going to ruin this place. You’re going to change this course, and you young guys should just never do anything like this.’ And it was amazing after we got finished doing it, a couple of them came up to me and said, ‘I’m glad we decided to do this.”’
Fry worked at the 1964 Open, selling scrip coupons that spectators used to buy refreshments, and he got to witness Ken Venturi walking the down the fairway at No. 18. Exhausted and at times disoriented by the notoriously stifling mid-Atlantic heat and humidity, Venturi persevered through 36 holes on the final day to claim the championship in one of the most extraordinary performances the sport has seen.
But Congressional always had one nagging feature that caused a stir every time the big names came calling. Robert Trent Jones’ redesign in the 1950s left the Blue Course with a par-3 finish, a scenic hole with a tee shot over a lake with the full expanse of the clubhouse in the background.
The members didn’t mind, but it wasn’t deemed fitting for a major event. Officials had to find ways around it. When Venturi won, the Blue Course borrowed two holes from the Gold Course so the tournament would end on the members’ 17th hole, a classic and difficult par-4 finishing hole that leads downhill onto a peninsula by the lake. At the 1995 Senior Open, No. 18 became No. 10, creating a long and awkward walk from greens to tees at the start of the back nine.
In 1997, the U.S. Golf Association decided to give the par 3 finish a chance. The Open was played the members’ way, and it proved a lackluster means for ending a major. The make-or-break shots everyone remembers – particularly Tom Lehman’s fateful 7-iron approach that bounded into the lake – happened at No. 17. The 18th hole was anticlimactic as Ernie Els took home the trophy.
“While the tournament was a great success,” Brundred said, “in the years immediately following as we began to lobby the USGA to return the U.S. Open to Congressional, they kind of let us know that they would very much like to return, but they didn’t want to finish again on a par 3.”
So another facelift was in order. The par-3 hole has been reversed, with the tee and green swapping sides of the lake. It’s now the 10th hole for everyone, members included, and fits naturally into the flow of the course. Next week, the golfers will finish on the same hole as Venturi did all those years ago.