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U.S. Open host has colorful, historic past
Congressional started as presidential
Don’t feel too bad for any golfer who hacks his way into one of the 96 sand bunkers on Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course during the U.S. Open this week. No matter how treacherous his plight, he’ll have it easier than Betty McIntosh did when she slithered through those bunkers face-down carrying a .32-caliber rifle back in 1945.
She was among the thousands of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) trainees sent to Congressional late in World War II to learn the wartime tactics employed by the CIA’s predecessor. The pristine landscapes you’ll see at the club this week were transformed then by barbed wire, firing ranges and Quonset huts. Instead of golf balls falling from the sky, it was live ammunition.
“That [training ground] was one that we all remember being rather colorful and nice because it was pleasant and away from things,” said Mrs. McIntosh, now 96. “We did have hand grenades and things, and they blew up some of the greens. It was such a beautiful place, too.”
The OSS’s two-year stay at Congressional is just part of the club’s colorful history, one in line with what you would expect from a club started by two Indiana congressmen who were determined to establish a playing and meeting ground for politicians and businessmen.
Congressional, located on River Road in Bethesda, is now a family club with approximately 3,000 members. None is an active congressman or senator, said Maxine Harvey, the club’s director of member services. That’s in stark contrast, though, to the club’s roll of 825 life members when it opened in 1924.
A picture in Congressional general manager Michael Leemhuis‘ office pays homage to the club’s presidential lineage. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the club’s founding president. President Calvin Coolidge was a founding life member, as were Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and William Howard Taft.
The cost of a founding life membership was $1,000, just a smidge less than Congressional’s current $110,000 initiation fee.
“I don’t think there’s any other place in the world where you have five different presidents involved in the start of a facility like this,” Mr. Leemhuis said.
There’s the picture of Vice President Richard M. Nixon teeing off to open the club’s new nine holes in August 1957. Former President Gerald R. Ford was the honorary chairman of the 1980 Kemper Open here.
Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to attend a U.S. Open when the tournament was last held at Congressional in 1997. His signed thank-you note to the membership hangs in a frame.
Speaking of Mr. Clinton, this is where he earned the title of first wedding crasher.
One Saturday evening in July 1995, Michael Kappaz was out near the Blue Course’s 18th hole with his daughter and her new husband getting their wedding pictures taken when he was approached by a member of the Secret Service. Mr. Clinton was finishing his round, and Mr. Kappaz’s party would have to move.
Mr. Kappaz grumbled, displeased that the occasion would be interrupted for any reason. Until, that is, the president stopped by the photo shoot and had pictures taken with the family.
“He’s all sweaty,” Mr. Kappaz, 69, recalled this week. “He puts his arms around me and he says, ‘All these people are invited by you and you’re paying for all this?’ I said: ‘Yes, Mr. President.’ He said: ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you.’ “
The golf course would have been quite a wedding photo backdrop when the OSS was there from 1943 to 1945.
To escape the club’s deep financial crisis, membership leased it to the government for $4,000 a month - the club’s copy of the lease is displayed in History Hall. Congressional’s remote, wooded location was ideal for learning to execute covert operations, ambushes and espionage. Under the guidance of Gen. William J. Donovan, it became known as Area F.
“They blew things up, fired live mortars and all sorts of live ammo over there,” said William Offutt, author of “Bethesda: A Social History.” “Tore the hell out of the golf course.”
Mrs. McIntosh spent only a few days there before she shipped out to China as part of her duty carrying out psychological warfare.
“It was kind of silly, the fact it was a golf course and we were pretending to be in the desert someplace,” she said. “It was good training for just how you could protect yourself if you wanted to.”
She recalled how the living quarters were so cramped, with trainees sleeping in cots stacked three to the ceiling. When the men got dressed on the upper levels, they anchored themselves by putting their feet on the ceiling.
Repainting the ceiling was just part of the $187,000 the government paid the club to fix all the damage.
Mrs. McIntosh never saw the bill, but “I remember Gen. Donovan shaking his head about it afterward,” she said.
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