- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2012

Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course limped away from the U.S. Open at about this time last year, its claws filed down by a 22-year-old Northern Irishman named Rory McIlroy and 19 other golfers who broke par.

The U.S. Golf Association intends to stage its premier tournament each year on a difficult course in the most challenging conditions. McIlroy’s Open record of 16 under par, then, was an insult, even considering the extenuating circumstances that contributed to such a bludgeoning.

The Blue Course restored its reputation over the weekend, though, by biting back at the field in the AT&T National. Tiger Woods‘ winning score of 8 under was the worst in the five tournaments played there since the inaugural AT&T National in 2007.

And considering the tournament finished on schedule despite significant tree damage caused by Friday night’s storm, Congressional shined at what could have been a dark moment.

“It’s a fantastic venue,” said Woods, whose foundation hosted the tournament. “Obviously they’ve played a few Opens here. You just need the right conditions.”

Those were not in place for the Open last year. New greens installed 20 months prior for the Open had not yet matured, and as a result, soft greens held shots. Hot temperatures in the weeks prior to the tournament prevented the rough from thickening, and it was more forgiving than the USGA preferred.

Overnight thunderstorms during the four-day tournament made the course even softer and made it vulnerable to a field consisting of the world’s top players.

This year was different. The greens had another 12 months to mature, and ideal weather leading up to the tournament ensured the rough was full. The resulting firm conditions challenged a field that included only four of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Only 14 players broke par over the weekend, compared to 20 at last year’s Open.

“I really enjoy playing here,” said Hunter Mahan, who led Friday after 36 holes. “This is a great test. I feel like it’s not unfair. I think it gives you birdie opportunities. You just have to take advantage.”

“I don’t think this place has to justify or validate how good of a golf course it is in any way,” added tour veteran Jim Furyk. “I think it’s always been a good golf course. It’s very difficult.”

It was nearly unplayable, too, on Saturday. Tournament director Greg McLaughlin arrived at the club by car at 11 p.m. Friday, shortly after the derecho downed 40 trees and loads of other debris on the grounds.

He turned off River Road onto the main drive to the clubhouse and found it blocked by a huge tree that had fallen across the road. He got out of his car and snaked his way through the branches only to find three other trees blocking the road.

Maintenance crews worked through the night to clear the course. That allowed the PGA to complete the third round of play Saturday, albeit without fans in attendance.

Longtime tour officials could not remember a competitive round played without fans, and it made for a surreal scene. Woods, golf’s main attraction, was followed by thousands of fans Sunday during his final-round duel with Bo Van Pelt. On Saturday, though, a group of only about 100 reporters, marshals, club members and tour officials walked the course with him.

“My foundation and the grounds crew and some of the volunteers that were here, they busted their hump to get this done [Saturday], and I’m just so proud of how everyone came together and got it done,” Woods said.

Woods tied a red ribbon on the package Sunday evening by outlasting Van Pelt to earn his 74th victory on tour. He passed Jack Nicklaus on the tour’s all-time wins list. Now he trails only Sam Snead’s 82.

The highlights of Woods‘ final round will last in local golf lore. His shot into the 12th green, on which he smashed a tree when he followed through with his 9-iron, is up there with the most remarkable shots of his career. His deadly-accurate 9-iron into the green on the final hole brought the crowd to its feet, as he headed toward his second AT&T National championship.

It was the exclamation mark to a weekend that, as it turns out, will be remembered for the right reasons.

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