"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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