BETHESDA, Md. – The Blue Course at Congressional Country Club is longer, tougher and not far from championship condition after a massive renovation that included rebuilding all 18 greens.
USGA officials showed off Congressional Friday, five weeks after it reopened and 11 months before it hosts next year’s U.S. Open.
The new greens are soft and slow – a concession to the scorching temperatures on the East Coast this summer – but Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competition, said the reconstruction will allow them to play firmer and faster than in previous events at Congressional.
The Blue Course hosted the 1997 U.S. Open and the PGA Tour’s AT&T National from 2007-2009.
Congressional, not the USGA, decided to rebuild the greens just two years before the Open, which Davis admitted made him nervous. The surfaces won’t have much time to mature, and any setbacks could have been disastrous.
“That is a short window,” Davis said. “Thankfully, they did such a superb job of construction.”
Congressional superintendent Mike Giuffre and his staff used global-positioning technology to replicate the existing contours. Players are unlikely to notice any differences, although Giuffre made subtle changes on several greens to allow for a wider variety of hole locations.
Ben Brundred Jr., co-chairman of Congressional’s U.S. Open committee, declined to say how much the changes cost. He did say that members paid to rebuild the greens and that all other costs were split between Congressional and the USGA.
The drastic move to rebuild all 18 greens was necessary, Giuffre said, to improve drainage and rid the greens of troublesome poa annua grass – which doesn’t hold up well during the Washington area’s sweltering summers. The new greens are a hybrid bentgrass with a deeper root structure.
Giuffre said he was still “babying” the greens by allowing the grass to get shaggy in the heat. “All in all, these young greens are holding up very well,” he said.
Davis has been hailed for bringing creativity back into the Open and rewarding aggressive shotmaking since he took over as the USGA’s setup guru in 2006. He hopes to continue that trend at Congressional.
The 6th hole, which played as a par 4 during the 1997 Open and the AT&T National, will be a reachable par 5 for the Open, meaning Congressional will play to a par of 71.
“We think it’s a better par 5. There’s much more risk-reward,” Davis said. “We get accused of taking 5’s and making them 4’s.”
Still, Congressional will have plenty of teeth, playing to 7,568 yards – more than 300 yards longer than in 1997. Davis installed new tees on seven holes, including the dramatic, downhill par-4 18th, which will play at 521 yards, forcing players to hit a mid-iron or more into the green.
The 18th played as No. 17 during the 1997 Open and turned out to be the decisive hole when Tom Lehman hit into the pond left of the green, leading to bogey. Ernie Els made par and won his second Open.
Congressional’s finishing hole until 2006 was a pedestrian par 3, but the hole has since been rebuilt and turned into No. 10.
USGA officials “let it be known that they would love to come back, but they didn’t want to finish on a par 3 again,” Brundred said.
The rest of the changes are subtle, intended to alter sight lines from the tee and bring more hazards into play. Davis moved, added or eliminated some fairway bunkers, including one on the brutal, uphill par-4 11th that prevented some balls from finding the creek down the right side.
“We think it’s a better golf course to test the greatest players in the world,” said Thomas J. O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “We applaud the club and thank them for having the initiative and the vision to go ahead and make those changes.”