CHANGING COURSE

June 26, 2011

The venue that first hosted the U.S. Open in 1964 was supposed to supremely test the world's best, but heavy rains rendered Congressional and its subsurface moisture-control system defenseless

A white-haired Ken Venturi, the 1964 U.S. Open champion, stood at a food table last Thursday afternoon to give a short talk for a tentful of greenkeepers. "Phil Mickelson just hit a tee shot 380 yards," Venturi said, speaking without a microphone. "In 1964, I was Number 1 in driving accuracy and 16th in average driving distance"—he paused a beat—"at 249!" The course workers, many of them established superintendents working pro bono, laughed appreciatively. "This golf course played 7,050 yards and par-70," the retired broadcaster continued. "It was the longest course in the history of the Open."

The greenkeepers grinned and shook their heads, except for two old-timers seated near the door, who nodded while smiling. They were the two who had raised their hands and drawn an ovation when Venturi had asked, "How many of you worked here the year I won?"

You needn't have been at Congressional 47 years ago, of course, to know that last week's 7,574-yard setup was appreciably different from the one that Venturi conquered. The 2011 Open had a different look, a different feel—even a different sound. The clubhouse was twice as big. A new par-3 10th hole played downhill over water. The bentgrass greens, only 22 months old and browning in spots even on Wednesday, were faster and smoother than any Venturi encountered as a pro.

"We had bermuda fairways then," said 68-year-old Wayne Burdette, Congressional's project foreman and one of the aforementioned old-timers. "You didn't get the roll with bermuda grass. The ball would only go 12 yards, where on bentgrass you get maybe 40 more yards." Venturi, had he heard this, would have been pleased. An extra 28 yards of roll would have boosted his '64 driving average to 277.

Burdette, relaxing on a bench in the grove of giant oaks that shades Congressional's maintenance compound, said he had worked at the club for "50 years, two months and 17 days." His brother Larry, 63, joined the crew before the '64 Open, the fourth in a two-generation line of Congressional grassmen started by yet another brother, Donald. "These trees were little back then," said Larry, looking up at the canopy.

"I was on the 18th hole the whole week of the tournament," Wayne said, reflecting again on '64. Wayne had worn a hard hat for his assignment, sweeping bunker sand off the green with a bamboo pole. "What I remember best was that two marshals started fighting at the finish, just as Venturi was getting to the green. The cops had to come down and break it up." Wayne opened an old Golf Digest to a black-and-white photo that showed him, as a slender youth, watching the brawlers from a few feet away. "Mr. Venturi autographed it for me," he said, pointing to the fresh signature.

"My job was raking traps and cutting greens," said Larry, who has since graduated to the role of chief stonemason and builder of Congressional's arched bridges and decorative walls. "We used a push mower, and there was no such thing as a Weed Eater. We used a hand sickle to cut the banks." Asked what else was different, he pondered for a moment. "The gallery was nothing compared to what it is now, where you can hardly move." He shrugged. "But, hey, golf was practically just invented then."

A half century later it's still being invented. Last week's greens, all 18 of them, were plumbed like a patient in intensive care. Buried pipes and blowers flushed excess moisture out of the soil and fed oxygen to the turf while producing a muffled, rumbling sound suggestive of a volcano about to erupt. "You can hear the SubAir working on some of the greens and not working on other greens," said defending champ Graeme McDowell. "They've obviously got a bit of an imbalance out there, as far as how much moisture is on certain parts of the greens." Pros accustomed to reading greens, it seemed, were now eavesdropping on them.

"The SubAir was designed to handle heavy rains like they had at Bethpage Black [in 2009]," said Mike Giuffre, Congressional's director of golf course maintenance. "It's a tool that helps us maintain the firmness that tournament greens require." Underground sensors, he explained, fed subsoil temperature and moisture data to a computer in his office. If a green belched, Giuffre could administer agronomical Tums at the touch of a button.

But could he control the weather? Of course not. The new greens, seeded in August 2009, were battling the Maryland climate the way Venturi battled heatstroke on the way to his only major championship victory. Giuffre described the steamy summer of '10 as "terrible, the worst for bentgrass in 30 or 40 years." More recently, the extraordinarily long and cool spring of '11 had ended with two weeks of upper-90s weather that stunted growth and gave some greens a mottled look. "You can't double- or triple-mow and roll greens in that heat and humidity," he said.

"We didn't want to gamble with the greens," said USGA executive director Mike Davis, acknowledging that green speeds of 14-plus on the stimpmeter wouldn't be achieved. "The low 13s makes the course play a little easier, but that's O.K." Equally sanguine was golf architect Rees Jones, who described the SubAir system as insurance for his overhaul of Congressional's Blue course. "The biggest worry," he said, "is that you work so hard to get the course ready, then the rains come and it's nothing like you envisioned. With this, Mike can recover and keep the greens firm."

Make that somewhat firm. Last week's unseasonably cool temperatures gave Rory watchers and the bentgrass a welcome respite, but a series of thundershowers left fairways and greens on the soft side. McIlroy, the Northern Irishman, seized the opportunity, attacking flags and making birdies in bunches. The rest of the field played tentatively, for two days anyway, thinking the USGA was playing cat-and-mouse with them. On Saturday, however, 26 of the 72 players who made the cut broke par (a record for a third round at an Open), and there were nine rounds of 68 or better, two fewer than the field of 156 shot in the first two rounds combined. The scores on Sunday were even more staggering, with 32 under-par rounds, including a dozen at 68 or better. "It's not as firm and fast as I would like to have seen it," McDowell said after a third-round 69 that left him 14 shots behind his much younger countryman. "That's the weather. You can't control that."

Others were less charitable. Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange blasted the setup as "way too easy," while Phil Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay, said that McIlroy was firing at pins "like it's the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic." No one seemed to remember the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills, at which the USGA blundered by allowing greens to actually die during the final round.

Back at the maintenance compound on Saturday evening, the greenkeepers could only shrug off the criticism and cut slices from frosted sheet cakes decorated with JOB WELL DONE icing. "There's not much you can do when you have rain five days out of seven for three weeks," said Wayne Burdette, enjoying a smoke on his bench. "The roots are just laying there. They're not looking for water."

In the end the golf course did what it was supposed to do: produce a great champion. Yes, Congressional gave up a record-low winning score of 16-under-par 268. Yes, Congressional allowed 20 players to finish in red numbers, more than the previous 10 Opens combined. But as the USGA's Davis pointed out on Sunday evening, "We had very soft conditions and no wind for all four days, so it was ideal scoring conditions. That said, I thought Congressional was a marvelous test."

Venturi, before he left, put it even more strongly. "No disrespect to other courses," he told the greenkeepers, "but if I had to pick a place to hold a championship, it would be Congressional Country Club in the nation's capital."

McIlroy, if he returns in 50 years, will probably say the same.

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THE BENTGRASS GREENS WERE FASTER AND SMOOTHER THAN ANY VENTURI ENCOUNTERED.

IF A GREEN BELCHED, GIUFFRE COULD ADMINISTER AGRONOMICAL TUMS AT THE TOUCH OF A BUTTON.

PHOTOPhotograph by SIMON BRUTYDOUBLE TROUBLE The water-enveloped 10th (foreground) and 18th greens offered spectacular views—and high drama. TWO PHOTOSKOHJIRO KINNOCUTTING EDGE Course-maintenance workers gathered to get their marching orders, while Wayne Burdette manned a mower that was a vast upgrade from the one he pushed in 1964. TWO PHOTOSKOHJIRO KINNOSPEED KILLS Workers were out before the sun on Wednesday to get the course in shape, while Davis was careful not to get the greens too fast.

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)