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Congressional a tough test for those seeking first PGA Tour title

Bill Haas reacts after winning the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club, Sunday, June 30, 2013, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)Bill Haas reacts after winning the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club, Sunday, June 30, 2013, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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When Bill Haas shot a 5-under-par 66 last year in the final round of what is now known as the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club, he won the tournament title while simultaneously turning away four others seeking their first victory.

As the tournament begins again Thursday, never in its seven-year history has a player seeking his first PGA Tour win hoisted the signature U.S. Capitol trophy.

Two of Tiger Woods' 79 PGA Tour victories have come at Congressional Country Club. Haas had previously won four other tournaments before pulling away by three strokes a year ago.

Even Justin Rose, who was victorious in 2010 when the event was held at Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia, captured his first PGA Tour victory a month before at The Memorial.

Some tournaments, such as the Valero Texas Open and the Greenbrier Classic, have been a haven in recent years for players hoping to finish atop the leaderboard for the first time. While first-time winners have captured 12 of the 26 titles in 2014, inexperienced players have historically been unable to do so at Congressional, which will welcome 43 who are seeking their first victory this weekend.

The greatest factor may be the course's difficulty. Tweaked before it hosted the U.S. Open in 2011, some players have referred to the event as a "mini-major" considering the challenges it presents: longer rough, firm greens and meddlesome hazards. Seasoned players have more experience playing under such conditions.

As an invitational tournament, only 120 players are permitted to enter instead of the standard 156, reducing spots for fringe players hoping to earn a larger paycheck.

And, with only 45 official money tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule, and 251 players who have earned points in the FedEx Cup standings entering this week, winning, simply put, is hard.

"I think Tiger, Phil [Mickelson], Adam Scott, Ernie [Els] — they've made it look easier than it is," Haas said. "There's only five guys I've named, maybe, and the rest of us laypeople — winning once a year is a huge deal, and winning multiple times is a career achievement."

Brian Davis, who turned professional as an 18-year-old in 1994, has made more than $10.5 million in winnings in 284 events on the PGA Tour since earning his card in 2005. Davis, however, has never won a tour event, finishing as the runner-up five times.

His most notable second-place finish happened in 2010, when, in a playoff with Jim Furyk at the Verizon Heritage, he called a penalty on himself for hitting a weed on his backswing. That decision effectively gave Furyk the victory.

"People don't realize [winning is] not just your game," said Davis, who entered the season second only to Briny Baird in career earnings without a tour victory. "It's managing your time, managing your travel, managing your family, managing all the different things that come along in life. ... To maintain that mentally is a feat in itself."

Learning how to win, too, can be difficult. Russell Knox, in his second year on tour, was in a playoff at The Honda Classic in March with Rory McIlroy, Ryan Palmer and eventual champion Russell Henley, who earned his first victory.

Knox, whose previous best finish was a tie for 10th at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, gained confidence that he can win on the PGA Tour from the narrow loss. He also learned the importance of taking his time and measuring his shots, knowing how much each counted.

"I think you see those top guys — they walk slow, they think slow, they talk slow, and you can play quick golf, but I think I was just a little too jumpy [until that tournament]", Knox said. "I think I learned to chill and take your time."

The challenge of the course may turn off some players who do not wish to play a U.S. Open-style course two weeks after the main event takes place.

Rose, who last played the course during the U.S. Open in 2011, said Congressional is a welcome challenge for players who want to be tested.

"I think we have plenty of tournaments out on tour where there's a birdie-fest, and the real stout tests are becoming fewer and far between out on tour," Rose said. "I've always liked playing golf [where] 10-under wins. To me, that's a great tournament. ... You know if you've come off the golf course and you've made a number, you've played well."

Haas, whose father, Jay, won nine PGA Tour events and has won 16 others on the Champions Tour, grew up knowing how difficult it can be for a tour player to get his hands on a trophy.

But for him, the stretch of dominance by former champions boils down to one simple fact.

"I think the first answer is most true — that there's only been [seven] of them," Haas said. "Twenty years down the road, if we keep playing it, you might see some more rookies winning here."

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