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.