Goodness, has Congressional Country Club come a long way. The legendary 36-hole facility in Bethesda, Maryland, in a Beltway suburb 12 miles northwest of the U.S. Capitol Building, is undergoing a season-long makeover. It won’t reopen until the spring of 2021, but based upon what I saw during a fall preview visit of the work in process it will emerge from its chrysalis totally transformed. It’s not quite a restoration; nor a renovation. Let’s just call it a complete transformation in place.
Credit the club, its board, general manager Jeffrey Kreafle, the director of golf, Jason Epstein and course superintendent Peter Wendt and his entire crew. Also kudos to Maryland-based golf course architect Andrew Green, whose meticulous commitment to historical documentation and on-site inspection ensured the details of an ambitious overhaul by McDonald & Sons, the contractors, that left not an acre of the golf course untouched or unimproved.
On a personal note, it has been fascinating for me to watch the transformation. I’ve been visiting Congressional since 1980, when I caddied in two Kemper Opens while looping (summers) on the PGA Tour. As a journalist, I had also covered U.S. Opens there in 1997 and 2011, during the last of which I walked as close to Rory McIlroy as press protocol allowed for 27 holes over the four days of his triumphant march. I should also add for purposes of full disclosure that at the invite of the club in 2016 I returned for a day-long (paid) consulting visit in which I shared with them my sense of the course and its potential for improvement. But I’ve had no subsequent involvement with the club and had not the slightest inkling of how far they would take things – until a visit on my own dime in mid-October.
Congressional is a big place: 380 acres, with two 18-hole golf courses, the Gold Course and the championship venue Blue Course (home to the U.S. Open in 1964, 1997 and 2011, the PGA Championship in 1976, and the Ryder Cup in 2031). It also boasts one of the largest clubhouses in the country, a Spanish Revival affair, some 140,000 square feet. The club was founded in 1924 as the focal point for recreation among the nation’s leaders in industry and politics on a non-partisan basis. It remains that way, a rarity in DC culture.
The Blue Course was something of a hybrid curiosity. An original 18-hole routing by Devereaux Emmet was split in half by Robert Trent Jones Sr, with the front nine rerouted and revised completely and a new back nine added. The original back nine was used to become the Gold Course in 1977. When Congressional was home to the 1964 U.S. Open – won famously by Ken Venturi – the layout included two holes from the Gold Course and finished with a dramatic par-4 leading down to a peninsula green, though it was actually the Blue Course 17th hole.
Without getting lost in the details, the course underwent subsequent renovations in the run up to its two more recent U.S. Opens, with Rees Jones adding his trademark mounding, variously tinkering with a new par-3 that was the 18th hole in 1997 and the 10th hole in 2011. In the process, Congressional Blue became heavily tree-lined, with fairway bunkering left and right and play strictly aerial and down the middle. Metro Washington, notorious for its summer heat and humidity, made the place feel like a vegetable steamer, with no relief in the form of air movement. The turf showed the strain. The course provided little emotional engagement for the golfer.
A lot of us who took architecture seriously thought the place was overrated: its land a kind of “under-performing asset” given its beautiful native contours and the way creek beds ambled across the site. That’s what I told them in 2016, in the process showing them an aerial of the original Devereux Emmet front nine that showed a virtually tree-less stretch dotted by necklace bunkering cross hazards, angular mounds and ground game access to the putting surfaces. It started, by the way, with a par 6 that linked its current first and second holes and ended on a dramatic little drop-shot par-3 across a ravine to its current practice putting green.
Enter Green, who by 2017 had made his mark with a major transformation of Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio and was slated next for restorations of Oak Hill East Course in Rochester, New York, and thereafter, Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. He works as a one-man band, meticulous in his archival research but also drawing upon technical expertise gleaned from over a decade as a field coordinator for McDonald & Sons.
Work at Congressional began in October 2019 with extensive tree work and reconstruction of every green, bunker and tee. Along the way, Green solved a perennial routing problem by finding a new site for the 10th hole – the third incarnation of the par 3, this one easily situated astride the clubhouse between the ninth green and 11th tee and eliminating an awkward walk back.
It was the only hole routing change, though many hole corridors were expanded dramatically and the entire fifth green was shifted to the right. The main achievement of the feature work was to make the elements fit in at grade level, provide ground game access to at least part of the greens, and bring the native areas and creek beds more into prominence while enhancing interior views across the site. Green was especially impressed with the prominence of the clubhouse and has now opened it up to view from most of the golf course – including a stunning infinity-edge vista behind the long, uphill par-4 15th hole.
Fairways went from 25 acres to 46 – all of it sodded with a 50/50 mix of 007 and Matchplay bentgrasses. The greens, newly planted in 007 (50 percent), Piranha (25 percent) and Coho (25 percent) got 16 percent larger, from 6,100 square feet on average to 7,200, with far more varied whole locations. Every bunker has been outfitted with Better Billy Bunker drainage and snuggled closer to the playing surface, with the leading edge into it mowed down to accentuate its impact on play. The course also got 350-yards longer, to over 7,800 yards – at the same time getting shorter from more forward tees. And all of that tree work has opened up the course to wind. It’s as if somebody turned on a big fan.
The engineering work was not simple. In order to maximize erosion control a series of acre-plus temporary holding ponds had to be built to collect any silt. Eventually, they will be removed, the areas established with native fescues to create a contrasting palette of plant material. The result overall will be a golf course that looks, feels and plays entirely differently to the old Blue Course.
Who said there were no prospects for Congressional reform? Amazing what happens when decision makers take a serious look and decide it’s time for a major change.
Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science) is a former PGA Tour caddie, a veteran golf journalist, a noted author (“Discovering Donald Ross” among others), a golf course consultant and the Golf Therapy columnist for Golf Course Industry.