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William F. Reed
June 23, 1997
The killer par-4 holes at Congressional turned out to be a lot tougher than anyone had expected
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June 23, 1997

Capital Punishment

The killer par-4 holes at Congressional turned out to be a lot tougher than anyone had expected

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There was a heck of a fight in Mike Tyson's backyard last week, and the winner, by a TKO, wasn't the former heavyweight champ. The decision went to the 475-yard 6th hole, statistically the second-most difficult par-4 in the history of the U.S. Open since such records have been kept, and the most dangerous of a murderers' row of two-shotters at Congressional Country Club.

Before the championship, the most publicized hole was the 18th because it's so rare to have a par-3 closer, especially in a major. But what turned Congressional from a relative pussycat into a tiger was the conversion of two holes that members play as par-5s, the 6th ( Tyson owns a house off the fairway) and the 10th, into par-4s, making par 70. The 7,213-yard course was the longest in Open history, longer by 160 yards than Congressional was for the '64 Open won by Ken Venturi or the '76 PGA won by Dave Stockton, because of changes made by architect Rees Jones in the late '80s. The 6th and 10th were also played as 4s in those two majors.

Add the 480-yard 17th into the mix, plus the 434-yard 4th and the 461-yard 13th, and you have an Open course to die for, to the USGA's way of thinking. The players, most of them anyway, thought so, too. "They want to test every aspect of your game," said Greg Norman. "Is it necessary to reach a par-4 in two? Maybe not. I've read stories about Ben Hogan laying up on par-3s to have the position to chip on and make par. Is that part of the game? Absolutely."

History counts for a lot in golf, and the 6th added its volume last week. Overall, it played .533 of a stroke over par, second only to the notorious 18th at Oakland Hills (.535 over par) in 1996. Congressional's other monster par-4s weren't far behind. Players averaged 4.479 strokes on the 10th, second hardest to the 6th, while the 17th ranked third (4.406), the 13th fourth (4.368) and the 4th sixth (4.301). During the first round last week only 25% of the players hit the 6th green in regulation (just 32.7% of the field hit the 10th). For the four rounds 34.7% made the green in two. If those kinds of numbers don't make the 6th the toughest par-4 this side of the Road Hole 17th at St. Andrews, the Congressional Killer at least deserves to be included in the debate.

The key to playing the hole is the drive, which must be long and straight for a player to have any chance of reaching the green in two. The second shot also is tricky, even for long drivers, because it frequently requires a long iron into a green that's not designed to hold long iron shots. A lot of players saw their balls hit on the green and bounce off the back edge into rough that was as thick as spaghetti. Even the green, with its three tiers, was no safe haven.

Before last week's opening round, Tom Lehman said he was going to play the 6th as a par-5 if need be and "not let that hole knock me out of the tournament." Lehman was as good as his word, laying up twice on the hole and bogeying both times (he also parred twice). If only others had been as wise. During the '64 Open a 52-year-old Sam Snead began his 24th quest for the only major he hadn't won by four-putting the 4th and then three-putting the 6th. After the latter, Slammin' Sammy fired his ball into the pond that guards the front right portion of the green. In the '76 PGA, Jack Nicklaus took the lead early in the final round but quickly fell out of contention at the 6th when he dumped his second shot into the water.

The 6th claimed plenty of victims this year, too. Mark Wiebe, still trying to recover from the previous week's Kemper Open, which he blew by missing short putts on the last two holes, five-putted the 6th green on Friday. "I couldn't get it in to save my life," he said. "In fact I lipped in the fifth one." In the first round John Daly blasted the longest drive of the day, leaving only a seven-iron shot. But he bounced his approach through the green and into the rough, where the ball disappeared. Vanished! After a long search, marshals found a ball, but it was so deeply embedded that Daly couldn't say for sure that it was his. He marked the ball in the rough, picked it up and identified it, then shoved it back down into the deep grass. Daly blasted over the green into more rough before chipping on and two-putting for a double bogey.

Daly's misfortune brought to mind a comment Gary Player made before the '76 PGA. "I've been telling people all my life that long courses don't necessarily favor long hitters," said Player. "People see 7,000 yards, like we have here, and they immediately predict that [anybody] who hits the ball a mile will win. The fact is, long courses favor the guys with good short games." But the short knockers were at a decided disadvantage at 6. Hale Irwin, a three-time Open champ, hit his second shot into the drink on Thursday. "I hit a four-wood a little off the toe and pushed it," he said. "The ball hit the rock wall and bounced back into the water. Another step and I'd have been on the green. I had to make a nice 20-foot putt to save bogey."

Corey Pavin had an even more embarrassing moment. He hit a drive of 235 yards on the 6th in the first round and still had 240 to the green. Trying to cream a three-wood, Pavin heeled the shot way left. His ball hit a pine tree, which saved it from ending up on the 7th fairway but forced him to wedge out to about 70 yards short of the green. He flopped it on from there and two-putted for a smooth double bogey.

As if to add to the Nicklausian connection to the 6th, Gary, Jack's 28-year-old son, on Friday reprised his father's famous meltdown of '76. Gary drove into the rough, wedged out, plopped his third into the water, put the next shot on and two-putted for a triple. If Gary had parred the hole, he would've celebrated Father's Day with his dad on the course instead of in his dad's gallery.

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