Arnold Palmer calls it "an enjoyable course to play." Others call it terribly long, as it is to the extent of 7,053 yards, and some call it hoked up, as it most decidedly is in two or three places. But by the time the Open Championship of the U.S. Golf Association is completed late on the Saturday afternoon of June 20, a great many of the golfers will want to liken Congressional Country Club's 18 championship holes to the original "monster"—the name Ben Hogan gave Oakland Hills after the 1951 Open.
As the helicopter flies, Congressional is about 10 miles northwest of the White House and all those L.B.J.s, but it is a considerably longer trip over some of the spidery roads that lead there from downtown Washington. The enormous stucco clubhouse crowns a hill overlooking some gently rolling Maryland farmland bordering the Potomac River, and the fairways of Congressional weave their way through lovely stands of oak and spruce and cypress, yet this is not a course where the trees will be a conspicuous nuisance to the golfers. On the whole, it is an airy, spacious kind of course. Its demands are those that the English Channel puts on a swimmer—the strength and endurance to make the trip and the courage to persevere when the going seems too rough.
Congressional Country Club is itself a far cry from the wheeling-dealing atmosphere that Congressmen, Senators and other Government officials in Washington seem to seek in their clubs. That distinction currently belongs to Burning Tree, a nearby course that President Eisenhower made politically chic. Congressional now counts among its politically noteworthy members only 23 Congressmen, six Senators and one Supreme Court Justice, Byron White. Except for them, it is now just another big family country club of the sort endemic in suburban America.
This was not always so. The club first opened for business back in 1924, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as one of the founders. Among the 7,000 who turned out for its inaugural ceremonies were President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, and the original $1,000 life memberships were bought up by people like the John D. Rockefellers, senior and junior, Vincent Astor, Harvey S. Firestone, a sprinkling of DuPonts and, for some reason, Charlie Chaplin. High old times were had there until the Depression, but through the dreary '30s the early membership of more than 1,500 dwindled to less than 300. By 1940 Congressional was bankrupt.
During the war the OSS rented the club for $4,000 a month and used the premises to train its agents in sabotage, espionage, sneaking up on the enemy from behind and other arts not unfamiliar to a golf course. When peace returned, Congressional found it had plenty of money in the bank and a property that had been renovated by the Government at a cost of $178,000. Then came the postwar golf boom and a current membership of 2,700 that was glad to invest $300,000 in improvements to get a tournament with as much prestige and profit as the U.S. Open. It took a lot of course changes—and seven years of supplication—but the Open is at last at Congressional and the golfers are headed its way.
Just as surely as tourists ogle cherry blossoms in April, the country's best golfers complain in June about whatever course is the scene of the current Open. Mostly they moan that the USGA has allowed the rough to become too high and the fairways too narrow, the bunkers too numerous and the greens too fast.
Three of these complaints—the greens, the bunkers and the fairways—are not strictly applicable to Congressional. The greens should be relatively slow—and rewarding to the bold putters—particularly if there is no real spell of heat to burn out the poa annua weed grass that infected them during the spring. The torment of the greens will be in the firmness of the earth beneath that refuses to yield to the spin of the ball. On many of Congressional's greens even short irons crisply hit will land with a brisk ping and bounce into the long rough fringing the rear of the putting surfaces.
The fairways, while not unconscionably or brutally narrow, demand accuracy as well as length, for their target areas are diligently policed by bunkers. These bunkers are not severely deep or notably expansive, as they were at Oakmont, but they are cleverly designed to catch the shot that tries to gain a cheap advantage. And such is the hellish inclination of the USGA championship committee that one can expect to find the fairways thoroughly soaked, if not by nature then surely by the greenskeeper. As is the custom for the Open, the rough bordering the fairways will be trimmed to two inches for the first six feet on either side of the fairway and to four inches farther out. On all the par-4 holes except the 8th and the 11th, anyone driving into the longer rough can figure on taking at least three strokes to reach the green. It is especially tough stuff, this rough, for it is mainly an elongation of the wiry Bermuda grass that serves as fairway for Congressional members in normal times.
Finally, anything that Congressional gives away in terms of such things as slowish greens it can quickly take back with its most conspicuous hazard—water. The water appears on only three holes, 6, 10 and 18, but on each of them it narrows the entrance to a green at a point where the player is using a long iron and needs all the room he can get.
It is not surprising, then, that after a round at Congressional two weeks ago Palmer came away pronouncing the course as severe a test of golf as the "monster" of Oakland Hills itself. "You have to keep fighting this course all the way," he said. "Nicklaus and I are going to have to be standing on those drives from every tee. Except for two weak holes, the 8th and the 11th, I can't see where there is any letup."
Palmer played his round under conditions that were as ideal as anyone has a right to expect for the tournament. The temperature was just under 70°, and the relative humidity was around 35%, so the ball was going to travel well. A westerly wind offered some variations to the holes, but it was not a wind to seriously alter the course. Some of the shots Palmer hit indicate what kind of problems some of Congressional's holes can pose.
On the first hole, which is 405 yards, he drove down the middle and between the two bunkers that bracket the target area. The wind was against him, so he needed a full six-iron to reach the front of the green. In spite of the length, he called it "one of the softest holes on the course."
The 2nd hole is a par-3 and still in some dispute. From the back of the regular tee the uphill shot to the green is 195 yards, but a new tee farther back and to the left stretches the hole to 215 yards. The green does not hold well, and it is unlikely that the longer tee will be used unless the normal tee proves unexpectedly easy. Palmer used the short tee and hit a low one-iron that landed short and rolled past the pin. "This is a pretty good hole from this tee," he said. "It needs a really well-hit iron, probably a two-iron or a three-iron with no wind."
On 4, a 423-yard par-4, he drove to the bottom of a swale crossing the fairway and used a three-iron to reach the green, which was small, uphill and 195 yards away. "A lot of guys won't reach the bottom here," he said, "and they'll be hitting their second shots from a downhill lie. It's a tough shot."
The 6th hole will create a stir. Normally it is a par-5 of 555 yards that terminates at a green protected on the right side and halfway across the front opening by a pond. Trees grow tight along the left side of the green, and at the left front is a bunker. The opening to this large two-level green is almost too small to think about. To serve the Open, a new tee was built, converting the hole into a par-4 of 456 yards. The drive is uphill all the way, and Palmer hit a big one that carried to the top of the fairway rise, leaving him 185 yards from home. With a following wind, he hit a six-iron. "A four-iron would be normal," he said.
And so to 9. This is the only par-5 on the front nine, and Wiffy Cox, Congressional's pro for 26 years, would like to bet that no one will reach the green in two throughout the tournament. It measures 599 yards, but a Grand Canyon of a ravine separates the end of the fairway from the green. Palmer used a three-iron to lay his second short of the ravine. He also hit another drive from the very front of the tee, cutting 50 yards off the length of the hole, which he believes is the place the hole should be played from. After his drive from the shorter tee, he hit the biggest three-wood he could—did so three times, in fact—and just reached the bunker alongside the green each time. It is a dangerous shot and there are thick woods outside the bunker. The only birdies here will go to those who play a delicate wedge to this two-level green and get the ball in the hole with one putt.
The 10th hole is just plain big—a 459-yard par-4 that is uphill all the way. Palmer hit a hooking drive to the middle of the fairway and still was 195 yards away. The two-iron he hit to the green rolled through it and into the long rough at the back. A perfectly hit three-iron landed right on the green and held. Here again there is a big pond on the right, and the green slopes in that direction. The long second shot on this hole must be drawn into the green from right to left in order to avoid the pond, and most of the golfers will be hitting with a wood. They will die a few times while their ball is in the air.
The 13th is where the real fun begins. Standing on the tee and gazing thoughtfully at the green some 448 yards away, Palmer said, "Just look at that. My last time here I had to use a one-iron from a downhill lie just to reach the green."
The 15th is the hole for those who like muscle. It is a par-5 that measures only 564 yards, but to reach it in two you must do so on the fly, for the USGA has cultivated a wide swatch of rough across the opening to the green. Since several bunkers protect the entrance on the right, this artificial rough becomes nothing but a penalty to equalize the long and the short hitters. Palmer hit his biggest drive and his biggest three-wood here, and his second shot stopped in the middle of the rough guarding the green.
The 17th hole looks easy. A long drive over the bunker on the left of the fairway at the target area could leave but an eight-iron or nine-iron to the green. Yet most players will be hitting their drives into the rising part of the fairway, leaving themselves a long second to a green that slopes away from the shot. In the late afternoon, shadows from the tall trees on the left, where there is an out-of-bounds fence, will make it difficult to judge distances accurately. Birdies will be scarce indeed when the pressure is on.
The 18th hole is a wonder. It is 465 yards and all downhill, but it still took a big drive and a four-iron for Palmer to get there. The green juts into a large pond to the east of the clubhouse. Here, late Saturday afternoon, a U.S. Open leader is going to have to hit one of the most trying shots of his life as that pond begins to look as big as an ocean and the green as small as a whitecap.
Walking up to the green, Palmer inspected the front entrance and said, "Look at Joe Dey trying to let that grass grow, and it won't grow." It made him smile to think of the frustration of Joseph C. Dey Jr., the executive director of the USGA, whose job it is to get the course ready.
Palmer made a tour around the fringe of the green. "See what Joe did here," he said. "He let the rough grow up long all the way around, and right where the ball would roll in the water he cut it short. Isn't that something?"
Later, at lunch, someone mentioned to Palmer that Robert Trent Jones, the noted golf architect who redesigned the Congressional course, had predicted a winning score of 283 or 284—that is, three or four over par for the 72 holes.
"That will be the popular guess," Palmer said, "but I'll take close to 280—or 290. I think it will be more like one or the other, depending on the weather. You have to remember one thing: that everyone will have a bad round—a 73 or 74. Even so, I think someone can shoot 280." He smiled that quick grin of his and added, "Maybe I'll have to do it myself."
Because of the enormous advantage the power hitter has at Congressional—and not just power off the tee but power to cut through the thick rough—Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are obviously the players to beat. Of the other very long hitters, one also thinks of Paul Harney and Juan (Chi Chi) Rodriguez. Both have won a PGA tournament this year, but neither has yet won a major title. That is a big consideration in rating the Open contenders, for one must look first to the golfers whose games have held up under the strain of a big championship. Bill Casper Jr. must also be regarded very seriously, for there is not a man on the golf tour today who can make the ball behave more exactly in accordance with his will. He is not a tremendous driver in the Nicklaus-Palmer category, but he always thinks his way around the difficult golf courses intelligently, and he has a natural sense of rhythm that makes him a consistent, and often brilliant, putter. Without brilliant—and lucky—putting, no one will win at Congressional. There is also Julius Boros, the defending champion and twice a winner of this tournament—a man who has proved that the Open does not intimidate him. Tony Lema is by now overdue for his first major championship, and he seems to be recovering some of the lost confidence that threw him into a slump after his Crosby victory in January, and Gary Player, off his recent victory at Indianapolis, looks sharper and more determined.
Whoever it is—one of these or some other—that sinks the winning putt on that pretty and frightening 18th green, he will indeed be a champion of fortitude, for that is the major ingredient of the test at Congressional.