Too often when courses are assessed the prime emphasis begins with whether the facility has hosted significant events -- especially major championships. The faulty premise is that the mere staging of such events means the golf architecture is of vintage quality. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Case in point -- Congressional Country Club.
Being located in a major metropolitan area can reap huge dividends -- most notably if that locale is the USA's national capital -- Washington, D.C. In plain speaking terms -- the greater DC area is clearly a vibrant location for a whole host of reasons but the golf side of that equation is fairly ordinary -- even with a few recent additions that have come onto the scene in recent years.
The head chieftain in pulling weight to get key major golf events has always been Congressional CC - set just outside the beltway in the well-to-do suburb of Bethesda, MD.
Congressional has a facility footprint that is nothing less than massive. The wherewithal to host golf events today centers in a big time way on the logistical side and Congressional can easily handle all the needed elements. The club has a second 18 called the Gold as well as an indoor duck pin bowling alley, tennis club, grand ballroom, one indoor and a lap pool with diving boards, a kids pool and main pool, fitness center and grand foyer. In addition, there are 21 overnight rooms on property. For the uninitiated -- you actually need a roadmap to know where you're going.
The key for Congressional is that the major decision makers of such organizations as the USGA and PGA of America have coveted having their marquee event -- US Open and PGA Championship respectively -- held in the DC area. This includes the PGA Tour which annually plays the AT&T National hosted by Tiger Woods at Congressional through at least 2020.
If not for having such a desirable location it's highly unlikely Congressional would have registered in being the site for three US Opens -- the last coming with Rory McIlroy's record four round performance in 2011. The PGA Championship was also played in 1976 and won by two-time winner Dave Stockton.
Ask yourself this -- how many clubs would take an existing hole -- a par-3 which was originally the final hole of the Blue Course layout -- then decide -- in order to host the '11 US Open -- for that specific hole to be completely obliterated for another par-3 going in the opposite direction? Spending money has never been an issue for Congressional to overcome.
The Blue Course has also gone through numerous revisions over the years. Candidly, the course has been unduly lengthened in order to tack on yardage to keep the world's best at bay. However, when the layout received some serious rains prior to the '11 Open it was easy pickings with McIlroy leading the bombardment with record scores.
The Blue is not about architecture that sparks memorability. It is simply a regurgitation of one similar hole following another. Dense trees engulf many of the holes so any real strategic dimension is considerably limited. In terms of variety there's precious little. Only one par-4 is less than 400 yards and it would not make any listing of superior short par-4's.
One of the real issues impacting Congressional deals with location more than anything else. Since the course is located in a transitional weather area -- which means grasses of a cooler type vie in competition with grasses that prefer warmer conditions. Washington, DC is notoriously hot and humid during summer months. In order to keep putting surfaces especially smooth, fast and most of all alive -- an inordinate amount of applied water is needed. This in turn creates sluggish putting speeds from the perspective of host groups like the USGA and it means the very real possibility the course will be easy pickings for someone who happens to be firing on all cylinders. Case in point -- McIlroy in '11. It's just hard for Congressional's Blue Course to truly ever be anything close to "firm and fast."
Ideally, the perfect time for an event would be either in mid-spring in May or in the cooler Fall months after September but the key organizations will not align calendars for their key championships to be played then.
Quality architecture is about creating a wide ensemble of holes -- which means having a routing that adds versatility with different land forms or movement of the terrain. The Blue is "paint by the numbers" design. You have predictable placements of bunkers in driving zones and around the greens but there's nary a situation that would strike one as being creative to the point of memorability.
The main drawback of the Blue Course is that it attempts to provide a clear link between degree of difficulty and compelling architecture. The layout has the former with several holes but there's really a short supply of holes and shots that would rise to the level of sustained interest.
The main hole of note is the former 17th -- now the final hole. Playing 522 yards from the tips the downhill par-4 is a slight dog-leg left and is especially well done. What makes the hole stand apart is the positioning of the putting surface -- jutting out into water engulfing the green on three sides. It was during the '97 US Open that Colin Montgomerie lost a critical opportunity when bogeying the 17th now 18th hole and losing to eventual winner Ernie Els by one stroke.
Frankly, I find it mystifying the Blue Course has continued to be rated as high as it does. There's little doubt in my mind that television exposure and the hosting of big time events can sway people to believe first rate architecture is also part of the picture when the reality says otherwise.
by M. James Ward
Date: February 24, 2017