Monday, July 2, 2007

When Ken Venturi staggered off Congressional’s final green as the 1964 U.S. Open champion, he famously quipped of Old Blue: “Best course I’ve ever won an Open on.”

Venturi, of course, went on to spend nearly three decades engaging TV audiences with his quick wit as the game’s pre-eminent color analyst. But the fact remains that even a nasty case of dizzying heat prostration couldn’t keep Venturi from recognizing Old Blue’s brilliance.

But just what is it about the 7,204-yard, par-70 layout that has always provoked universal reverence from the planet’s best players? It’s got to be more than history.

Only true architectural junkies can name Congressional’s original designer, Devereaux Emmet, who sculpted the original layout in 1924, carving out nine holes of the current Blue Course and nine holes of the current Gold Course.

And any number of lower-caliber layouts (Southern Hills, Inverness, etc.) have hosted more majors than Congo’s relatively modest tally of three (1964 and ‘97 U.S. Opens and 1976 PGA Championship). So what makes Bethesda’s Old Blue jewel so priceless?

“It’s a big, grand golf course,” said Robert Trent Jones Jr., who assisted his famous father during renovations preceding the ‘64 Open and consulted with his brother, Rees, on changes made before the ‘97 Open. “It has a massive feel to it that clearly places it among the epic school of golf course design. Among the epic or heroic school of courses in the United States — places like Oakmont, Winged Foot and Oakland Hills — Congressional is clearly in the top 10.

“When you stand on a tee box, in the fairway or on a green at Congressional, you feel at once dwarfed and emboldened. It is a place made for heroes and heroic deeds. To play at Congressional is to feel like Beowulf in his great hall or a gladiator in the Colosseum.”

Few understand that sensation better than Venturi, who recorded one of the most heroic performances in Open history at Congressional.

The 36-hole finale of the 1964 Open was played on a sauna-like Sunday that rated as atypically scorching and sticky even by Washington’s unpleasant midsummer standard. Venturi entered the day six strokes behind 36-hole leader Tommy Jacobs but made up that ground and more during an opening-nine 30 that carried the oft-injured Californian to the top of the leader board.

Venturi, three times a Masters bridesmaid, was en route to the lowest score in major history when he began feeling the effects of the extreme heat while standing over a putt for birdie to go 7-under at the 17th.

“The third-round 66 could have been one for the ages if I hadn’t gotten dizzy at the end,” recalled Venturi last week. “I got over that 12-footer at No. 17 and nothing would stay still, not my hands, nor the cup, nothing. Everything was shaking. I three-putted there and missed from under three feet [for par] at 18, turning a 63 into a 66. I turned to [playing partner] Raymond Floyd after we finished and told him I was in big trouble. I didn’t think I could play in the afternoon.”

Venturi slumped into the clubhouse between rounds, where club member Dr. John Everett administered to Venturi and advised him to withdraw.

“What’s a kid from San Francisco know about heat prostration?” said Venturi, chuckling. “I knew it was hot and humid, like near 100 degrees. But I was literally so focused on my game that I didn’t drink anything. Can you imagine? I insisted on playing, so Dr. Everett gave me tea, iced me down and started feeding me salt tablets. I took 18 tablets between rounds. Nowadays, they say 18 salt tablets could kill you.

“I was a little better in the afternoon, but from the time I got up that morning until I weighed that night I lost 8 pounds.”

Playing shots he doesn’t remember, Venturi crushed all comers that afternoon, posting an even-par, final-round 70 to cruise to a four-stroke victory over Jacobs. Prompted by Venturi’s near-disaster and TV’s preference, the USGA switched to a four-day format the following year, forever abandoning its sadistic 36-hole Open finale.

Venturi’s Congressional conquest set the standard for major heroism on Old Blue. And a dozen years later, after a series of massive thunderstorms forced a Monday conclusion to the 1976 PGA Championship, Dave Stockton unlocked the layout’s second secret to success.

While Stockton came nowhere near matching Venturi’s ball-striking brilliance, he did flatstick his way to the title with just 53 putts over the final 36 holes. And when he jarred a 15-footer for par at the 72nd hole to edge Floyd and Don January by a stroke, a star far brighter than Stockton was born: Congressional’s epic 18th hole.

Never was the import of Congressional’s downhill, right-to-left, 488-yard hole to a peninsular green more keenly felt than during Ernie Els’ one-stroke victory at the 1997 U.S. Open. Logistics and player flow prompted the USGA to play the hole as No. 17, but Old Blue’s customary finishing hole would not be denied its rightful place as the layout’s signature stage.

The 1997 Open was defined by two final-round strokes at the 17th: Colin Montgomerie’s missed 6-foot par putt and Tom Lehman’s slightly pulled, water-logged approach. Montgomerie bogeyed the hole all four days en route to yet another tantalizing near-miss at the Open.

“I love the variety of holes at Congressional,” said Els recently. “Take last year’s U.S. Open site, Winged Foot. Now, that’s an incredible course. But compared with Congressional, you don’t take that many holes home from Winged Foot, maybe two or three. At Congressional, [using the 1997 U.S. Open] routing, you have a number of unforgettable holes. Speaking very conservatively, I’ll give you No. 6, No. 9, No. 10, No. 17 and No. 18.”

The conundrum of Congressional’s tournament finish was forever solved this offseason, when the club built a new par-3, 10th (218 yards), flipping the direction of the previous tournament 18th to ease player flow and ensure that future events at Old Blue will finish on the layout’s signature hole.

“If I had to pick one thing that separates Congressional from every other championship venue, it’s that hole,” said Greg Norman, who collected his first PGA Tour victory at the 1984 Kemper Open at Congressional. “The approach to that peninsula green with a mid-iron is one of the most intimidating second shots imaginable. I’ve always thought that was the best closing hole in golf.”

Tiger Woods concurs. This week’s host, who finished T19 at the 1997 Open, immediately pinpointed the finishing hole when asked to discuss the layout in his May press conference at Congressional: “It’s extremely fair, but it’s a tremendous challenge because people don’t realize how much it swirls down there near that green. You have to try to pick a club and be committed to it. And if you tug it a little bit, you’re wet; block it, and you’re in one of those bunkers.

“You have to hit a precise shot with everything on the line. And now with it being the 18th hole, it makes it even more difficult.”

With it’s heroic scope and unforgettable finish, Congressional has always provided one of the game’s premier backdrops. Starting this week, the game’s best players will resume providing the one commodity standing between Old Blue and ultimate veneration: history.

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