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 I fills 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 with-in 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."