YIKES! JUST BECAUSE THE U.S. OPEN FINISHES ON A PAR-3 DOESN'T MEAN THAT IT WILL COME TO A BAD END

June 08, 1997

What's this about a par-3 finishing hole in the U.S. Open? Isn't
that like playing the NBA Finals with nine-foot rims, the Super
Bowl on an Arena football-length field or the World Series on a
Little League diamond? What happened to the 450-yard, par-4
monster of an 18th, a heretofore essential ingredient in the
world's hardest championship? Where's the closer that's so
difficult that a wayward drive means an automatic bogey and
calls for the most testing shot in the game--a long iron to a
firm green?

Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills have such a finishing hole. So
do Cherry Hills and The Country Club. All of American golf's
great oaks--Oakmont, Oakland Hills and Oak Hill--have finishers
on which the winner is validated by two full-blooded shots. Even
Merion, too short to hold the Open anymore, has a tough 18th.
(How famous would Hy Peskin's 1950 photo of Ben Hogan be if
instead of holding his finish with a one-iron on his approach to
the 72nd hole, the great man had hit a seven-iron, off a tee?)

Yet next week's 97th U.S. Open, at Congressional Country Club in
Bethesda, Md., will be concluded on a par-3--the 18th hole of
the club's Blue Course. In the past officials thought so little
of the hole that it didn't make the cut in the composite
layout--Congressional has another 18 holes, the Gold
Course--used for the seven Kemper Opens held at the club, the
1964 U.S. Open and the '76 PGA.

Sure, there's a lovely pond fronting the 18th that must be
carried, and a new tee has been added to stretch the hole from a
dinky 160 yards to 190. But the 18th runs downhill, and on a
hot, windless day, adrenaline-charged players will be hitting
eight-irons. Frankly, how hard can the little fellow be when
members play it as the 18th handicap hole?

Not only is the hole too easy, but there's also the weirdness of
ending a major championship on a par-3. That hasn't happened in
the U.S. Open since 1909 at the defunct Englewood (N.J.) Country
Club, and not in a major since the PGA at Hershey (Pa.) Country
Club in 1940. That year Byron Nelson striped a three-iron to
within 10 feet on the 36th hole of the final to hold his one-up
lead on Sam Snead.

But you know what? Although it may not seem right to end on a
par-3, the finish at Congressional could be one of the most
exciting ever.

First, let's dispel some faulty notions. It isn't written
anywhere that the final hole at the U.S. Open has to be a killer
par-4. A bunch of classic Open courses don't have one. Baltusrol
has a short par-5. Pebble Beach has a three-shot par-5 (except
when Tiger Woods plays it). Olympic Club has a short par-4, as
does Inverness. "We don't say, 'Whoops, sorry, you don't have a
460-yard par-4 finisher. We aren't showing up,'" says David Fay,
the executive director of the USGA.

Plenty of great courses have par-3 finishes. Garden City (N.J.),
Oak Hills in San Antonio, Pasatiempo, near San Jose, the Old
Course at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., East Lake in
Atlanta and Charles River in Newton Centre, Mass., are a few.
Their members, though, seem defensive about their 18ths. "It's
as if people feel the course is something less than whole," says
Fay. "Well, if one result of this year's National Open is that
it validates a par-3 finish, that's great."

There is also a misconception that par-3s are easier than par-4s
and par-5s. Perhaps they are on the handicap rating--which
basically calculates a hole's difficulty by how much potential
disaster lurks for the average golfer--but in tournament golf,
par-3s are often the most treacherous holes of all. There is no
harder hole for a professional to par than the 5th at Pine
Valley. Many consider the 4th to be the hardest hole at Augusta
National, and who wouldn't consider Augusta's 12th, in terms of
drama, challenge and possibilities, a more stimulating hole than
the somewhat ordinary 18th?

While the 18th at Congressional is not in this class of severity
or design, it can be one of the most dangerous holes on the
course. The prevailing wind blows toward the players, and if it
becomes more than a breeze, that could mean that a four- or even
a three-iron will be needed. The USGA decided that the grass on
the steep bank fronting the putting surface and flanking it on
the left will be groomed to a slippery half-inch, so any ball
that lands on the bank is probably going into the water. Anyone
hitting into the hazard will be required to hit his third shot
over the water again from a drop area about 90 yards short of
the green. Four will be a great score from there. "It's going to
make the tournament very interesting," says defending champion
Steve Jones. "It'll take a really good shot to get it close. I
know that this hole is going to be very difficult."

Such a scenario did not quell the opposition to a par-3
finishing hole among Congressional's large and often contentious
membership. Some wanted the Open to be held on the so-called
Venturi Course, which in 1964 (and from 1980 to '86 at the
Kemper) borrowed two holes from one nine of the 36-hole complex
and dropped the original 16th and 18th. But the idea didn't fly
because the Venturi Course no longer really exists. Rees Jones,
in his renovation of the Blue Course in 1989, changed it
dramatically.

The renovation was done so that all of the holes on the Blue
Course could be used. Still, the 18th was seen as a problem. In
the '94 Senior Open at Congressional, the USGA included the hole
but changed the routing of the course so that the 18th was
played as the 10th. Golfers and fans were so
inconvenienced--players and their caddies had to be shuttled
from the 9th green to the 10th tee and then from the 10th green
to the 11th tee--that the experiment was judged a failure. When
it came time to make a decision on where to put the hole for
this year's Open, Fay and USGA president Judy Bell considered
all the options and then suggested blasphemy. "We thought, Why
not leave it as it is?" says Fay.

The simplest answer will probably turn out to be the correct
one. "The club had been through so many changes, it was ready to
have a Caterpillar tractor for a logo," says Fay. "It was time
to say, 'Enough already.' Besides, when we looked at the big
picture, we decided that having the par-3 as a finisher is a
strength, not a weakness. We have transformed the viewing for
almost 20,000 people, who will be able to see approach shots and
putting on the 17th and the entire play on the 18th. That's as
good as it gets on an Open course. It will be spectacular."

It could be historic. No one in the final pairing has ever made
a birdie on the last hole of regulation to win the U.S. Open by
a stroke. If the 18th is playing easy on Sunday, that could
happen at Congressional. Of course, there's another scenario
that's even more heroic, and it could only happen at
Congressional: A hole in one wins the Open.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR JUHASZ The final test at Congressional will be a 190-yard shot over water. [Drawing of man golfing in front of pond at Congressional Country Club]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)