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New math: Congressional to play as a par 71

BETHESDA, Md. – Along the woods that line the far edge of the front nine at Congressional Country Club, the U.S. Open is giving up a stroke.

Begrudgingly, mind you.

The Blue Course’s No. 6, which played as a par 4 in the two previous U.S. Opens at Congressional, will be a par 5 when the tournament begins Thursday morning, the miserly U.S. Golf Association having decided it going too far against the grain by making the hole into something it was never meant to be.

“It’s a great change by the USGA,” said Ernie Els, who had reason to like the old setup, having won the U.S. Open on the Blue Course in 1997. “There’s enough really tough holes out here at Congressional. That green was built for a par 5, and we’ve had this debate in Europe a couple of weeks ago about holes and greens that are built for 5s and then you change it to a 4, it just doesn’t quite mesh with the design. I’m glad they did that.”

Congressional’s members have always played No. 6 as a tricky, risk-reward par 5. A pond hugs the front and right side of the green, making a layup the better play for golfers lacking any confidence whatsoever in their approach game.

For the pros, however, it was one of those tweeners – two easy if it’s a 5 and too hard if it’s a 4. The average score on No. 6 in 1997 was 4.533 – the half-shot over par earning the dubious ranking as the toughest hole on the course.

But the USGA didn’t just leave it alone and call it a 5; they did some tinkering. There’s a new tee box about 40 yards further back and to the left, putting the hole at 555 yards. The fairways have been pinched. Practice round drives this week have often landed in the thick left rough, negating any chance of making the green in two.

“It is a wonderful par 5 that really has a lot of decision-making involved,” Phil Mickelson said. “And I think it’s such a great thing that they went back to it as a par 5 rather than making it another brutal par 4 like there are so many out here. It just makes it more fun and more interesting. That’s a spot where you’ve got to really decide, ‘Is this where I really want to attack it?’ Because you’re going to see some eagles on that hole.”

And some adventures. During Wednesday’s practice rounds, players were dropping balls on various points along the fairway, trying both the layup and long approach to the green.

Michael Smith, who made the tournament through local and sectional qualifying, had the worst of both worlds: His drive landed in the left rough, so he dropped a ball on the fairway to try to reach the green in two – and promptly plopped his shot into the pond.

“It’s kind of out of character with the rest of the golf course,” said defending champion Graeme McDowell, who also found the left rough off the tee in a practice round this week. “It doesn’t feel like it fits the golf course. I can’t imagine it as a par 4. It’s a pretty good 5. It’s an exciting 5. Kind of a blind tee shot. You’ve really got to make sure you pick your spot off the tee. … It’s definitely going to be dramatic.”

The extra stroke – which means par will be 71 instead of 70 – helps compensate for the lack of a drivable par 4 on the Blue Course. And, just to make things more interesting at No. 6, the USGA won’t be using that new back tee every day during the tournament.

“I have a hunch you might see the tee moved up sometime during the championship to further entice the players to go for that green,” said Tom O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “The danger, of course, is the pond. A well-executed shot will make it to that putting green. A poorly executed shot will not.”