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Familiar course with a new look for the U.S. Open

BETHESDA, Md. – Three players in the 156-man field at the U.S. Open have won at Congressional. Only one of them knows what it takes to win a U.S. Open. That would be Ernie Els, who captured his second U.S. Open title in 1997 at Congressional.

When the AT&T National came to Congressional in 2007, K.J. Choi won over Steve Stricker. A year later, Anthony Kim closed with a 65 for a two-shot win over Fredrik Jacobson. Tiger Woods had rounds of 64-66-70-67 when he won in 2009. He won’t get another crack at Congressional this week because he is not playing due to left leg injuries.

“The course definitely plays different than when I won in 2007,” Choi said on Monday, the first full day of practice for the Open. “The tee shot … when you’re standing on the tee box, the holes played different. You have to attack differently. They’ve pulled it back 20, 30 yards on some of the holes, so you actually have to draw your shots, where in 2007, I could fade my shots.”

Even so, the experience of winning has helped Choi feel like he knows his way around. He knows where he can miss, and where the big numbers are waiting if he misses in the wrong spot.

“I think the key point is whether you’re able to hit your second shots and stop it on the green, stick it to the green, stick it to the pin within 4 or 5 yards,” Choi said. “Once you’re able to do that, I think you have a better advantage.”

Early reviews on Congressional are favorable as a a stern but fair test, but the greens are not quite as firm as they tend to be when the competition gets under way on Thursday.

Among the favorites this week – because of the major, not the location – is Lee Westwood of England, who is No. 2 in the world and getting closer than ever to winning his first major.

Westwood had a putt to get into the playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008 U.S. Open. He had a par putt to get into a playoff at Turnberry a year later, and he had the 54-hole lead in The Masters last year.

“I think if you’re a good player, you’re going to have disappointments because you’re going to be in contention a lot, aren’t you?” Westwood said. “You’re going to have lots of chances to win major championships.”

It wasn’t always that way for Westwood.

Even though he rose to No. 4 in the world earlier in his career, it took him until a few years ago to start getting seriously close. His first U.S. Open happened to be in 1997 at Congressional.

“My first impressions were it was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be,” Westwood said. “The toughness of a U.S. Open setup takes you by surprise when you’ve never played it before. And I really don’t remember a lot from ’97, other than it was quite wet. There wasn’t a lot of run of the fairways, and it played quite long.

“I did all right,” he said. “I finished 19th, so I was quite pleased with that. First effort at a U.S. Open.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise that a first-time player has not won the U.S. Open in 98 years, dating to Francis Ouimet across the street from his house in Brookline in 1913.

The other majors have had debutants win in the last three decades – Ben Curtis at the British Open (2003), John Daly at the U.S. PGA Championship (1991), Fuzzy Zoeller at the Masters (1979).

For the players who haven’t been back in 14 years – Els, Westwood among them – there are a few big changes. The par-3 18th has been switched to a different direction and now is No. 10. Considering it’s a two-tee start in the opening two rounds, it will be the third course in the last 10 years when players start a round on a par 3. The others were Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Winged Foot.

The closing hole – the old No. 17 from 1997 – is now a 523-yard par 4 into a green surrounded by water.

By the end of the week, par might be a good score. By the look of it early in the week, however, some players feel as though they at least have a fighting chance.

“There’s no tricks to this golf course,” Westwood said. “You could almost turn up Thursday and just play it because it’s such a good, honest test.”