The man slipped into the room, a few feet from the silver trophy etched with his name that sparkled under a wrought-iron chandelier.
Then Graeme McDowell cracked open a can of soda and flashed a sheepish grin at the noise. The defending U.S. Open champion was back inside Congressional Country Club, away from the whine of weedeaters chopping down wilted flowers and smoke from grilling hamburgers wafting toward 18 of the toughest holes of golf he’s played.
“The course has a real old-school feel, a real traditional feel to it,” McDowell said during Monday’s media day at the Bethesda club, where the U.S. Open runs June 16 to 19. “It feels like it really fits the area in which it’s built.”
That’s a polite way to call the course brutal.
Congressional’s Blue Course will total 7,574 yards, the second-longest in U.S. Open history. The only gesture to the 156 golfers is upping the par to 71 from the 70 it played at in two previous U.S. Opens.
“It’s the most rigorous, most difficult, most fair test in championship golf,” USGA Vice President Thomas O’Toole said.
During his practice round Monday, McDowell tweeted a prediction that no one will break par. The round left McDowell unsure if the course will suit his game, best described as midrange. Whatever the case, McDowell, O’Toole and about anyone else asked believe mental toughness is key.
That’s because of holes like the par-4, 494-yard No. 11. Water is to the right of the green. Too far left, and you’ll end up pitching downhill.
“I can’t really see much positive to say about that hole,” said McDowell, who hoped that over the coming six weeks the course dries out from heavy spring rains. “It’s going to be a hell of a test.”
Same for No. 18. What used to be No. 17 now finishes the course at 523 yards and par 4. Mike Davis, the USGA executive director and mad scientist of U.S. Open course setup, believes No. 18, along with No. 16, will define who wins the championship.
One stroke was added to No. 6, upping it to par 5. Davis called the original par-4 configuration “not only unfair, but over the top.”
It’s little solace for McDowell, who thinks No. 18 presents one of golf’s stiffest challenges to finish. And the Irishman knows a thing or two about challenges.
Last year’s U.S. Open win on Father’s Day in front of his father, Kenny, still gives McDowell goose bumps. He’s recognized in airports and coffee shops. The phone of his publicist in Dublin is “a little hotter” these days. The experience changed his schedule and life but, he hopes, not his personality.
“You always say you have nothing more to prove,” McDowell said. “But deep down, I think we always feel we have something more to prove. You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.”
Things haven’t gone as well of late for McDowell, including missing the cut at last week’s Classic of New Orleans. The long game, in particular, has disappointed him.