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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."