When architect Andrew Green interviewed for the job at Congressional Country Club in January 2018, he pointed out a curiosity about the club’s reputation. For all the legendary history of the 36-hole club, much of it thanks to three US Opens (1964, 1997, 2011) and a PGA Championship (1976) on the Blue course, the imagery and initial impression of the place seemed to revolve around the clubhouse.
Not surprisingly, at one level, since the 135,000-square foot Spanish Revival building dominates the landscape due to its scale, location on a high point, and position overlooking the start and finish of both golf courses. Green’s goal, he said, “was to make the Blue course meet or exceed the clubhouse in reputation.”
He might well have succeeded. After closure for all of 2020 that saw the Blue course completely overhauled, Green and Congressional are about to unveil their work. It’s not a restoration. Certainly not a modernisation. Let’s call it a transformation into a new-old golf course.
Congressional occupies a lightly rolling, 380-acre tract 12 miles northwest of the US Capitol Building. It opened in 1924 as a recreational outpost for the nation’s governing class. Its founding life members included five US Presidents plus leading names from industry, media and entertainment. When the club’s doors officially opened on 23 May 1924, the news occupied the lead spot on the Washington Post’s front page.
Swimming pools, tennis courts, a bowling alley and extensive banquet and dining halls, 20 overnight rooms and a Presidential suite – all of it stood available to the nation’s elite. The amenities included an 18-hole golf course designed by Devereux Emmet.
Emmett was not among the best-known designers of the Golden Age of architecture, mainly because much of his work preceded that era and not a lot of his best work has survived intact. A lawyer by training, he was more interested in golf, raising hunting dogs and selling real estate around the burgeoning community of Garden City in the middle of Long Island, New York. It was there that he laid out an early nine-hole version of Garden City Golf Club in 1897. As brother-in-law to the famed New York building architect Stanford White (the two married millionaire sisters), Emmet was extremely well connected to Metropolitan society.
Emmet was fond of peppering his courses with all sorts of bunker formations – necklacing, cross hazards, coffins, deep pits and diagonal echelon. He was not averse to popping mounds up and running them right into the line of play – often creating them from stone, tree stumps and other debris from the site. The approach is evident at Meadow Brook Club in New York (which no longer exists), Country Club of Farmington in Connecticut and most dramatically, in fully restored form at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in New York – a club which Emmet pored over meticulously as a member, board member and occasional club champion.
Emmet’s Congressional layout occupied a sparsely treed site, with most of the ground open except for dense woods covering a ravine on the front nine. Both nines began with par sixes – eventually broken up to a par four/three sequence on the front and four/four on the back. Much of Emmet’s telltale bunkers and mounding were scattered throughout – some of it still evident in an early 1940s photo of the front showing deep, liner coffin bunkers and liberal use of cross hazards.
By the time Green set to work on dealing with the site, everything had changed about the golf course.
It didn’t help that during the second half of World War Two the grounds at Congressional were requisitioned by the War Department to serve as training ground for the Office of Strategic Services – a forerunner of the post-war CIA. Under the direction of General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the site was overtaken by hundreds of aspiring spies and black-ops trainees who lived in tents while practicing artillery, parachuting, munitions and commando raids, replete with close-in fighting.
After Congressional returned to civilian use, plans developed for additional golf, with Robert Trent Jones Sr, then the dean of modern golf course architecture. He was hired to build a third nine while renovating the original front nine. Thus, was born the Blue course, opened in 1957, featuring a dramatic downhill par-four seventeenth hole to a peninsula green, followed by a mid-length par-three eighteenth across a pond to a green sitting under the clubhouse patio. The work proved so popular that Jones was brought back in 1959 to revamp the original front nine – in the process completely rerouting Emmet’s holes, heavily grading up the greens and removing the cross bunkering.
This was the course upon which Ken Venturi won the 1964 US Open – in a typical Washington DC swelter of searing heat and humidity. Interestingly, the routing for this event, as well as for the 1976 PGA Championship, skipped two of Jones’ holes, borrowing a par three and par four from the third nine to wind up the round on that dramatic downhill par four to the green backed by the pond.
More work ensued on Congressional, with the old third nine folded into a new 18-hole Gold course when George and Tom Fazio added a fourth nine to the club in 1977. In the late 1980s, Rees Jones began a succession of work rebuilding the Blue, in the process reshaping greens, moving bunkers to conform to landing points of modern championship golf, and framing landing areas and greens with mounding. He managed to create a contiguous 18-hole routing so that the championship venue could rely upon an entirely Blue course rather than borrow holes in composite fashion. This involved restoring his father’s par-three eighteenth hole (for the 1997 US Open), then reversing it so it played as the tenth hole for the 2011 US Open and the layout could end with its famed downhill long-par four to the lake.
As Green assessed this design legacy it was evident there was no clear template to rely upon. He set out to bring the holes back down to earth and create a more natural looking, older style to Congressional Blue.
Along with enhancing the course’s championship pedigree for elite players, it had to meet the day-to-day needs of a very active membership. It also had to solve some basic agronomic and conditioning issues that had come to bedevil the place.
“It’s heavy soil out here,” says Peter Wendt, Congressional’s director of golf course and grounds. “Basically, heavy red clay.” Tree overgrowth had substantially reduced wind across the site while shading areas and making it hard to dry out. The proliferation of greenside mounding also tended to create issues, by steering water onto the green fillpad while impeding air movement. The mounding on the backside of bunkers also create low spots that trapped water. The result was a golf course with cool season grasses in a region with notoriously hot, humid summer weather and a less-than-ideal microclimate.
Most of what it takes to make a project work takes place behind the scenes, quietly, during a protracted planning process. At Congressional, Green worked closely with Wendt, club chief executive Jeffrey Kreafle and director of golf Jason Epstein, as well as the board and a specially designed Master Plan Committee. Together they updated the membership, including a full reveal at which Green walked folks through the entire plan. The last thing anybody wants is for there to be surprises – especially because the changes proposed entailed a different kind of golf course, with the standard tree line to tree line maintenance of a parkland layout giving way to something more open and more natural.
It probably helped ease concerns that at least the Gold Course would be kept open throughout – though no one could have anticipated the extra demand for golf once the pandemic hit in March 2020 and left many members homebound and looking for recreation.
Before construction could begin in October 2019, the club had to secure extensive permitting from county, state and federal authorities. This covered everything from water quality and erosion control to caliper-for-caliper tree mitigation as per local mandate. To satisfy concerns about potential runoff the club agreed to build a staggered series of retention basins, five of them at least an acre each in size, three of them half an acre large. That considerably complicated movement of equipment and personnel across the site during construction.
In this and everything else, contractor McDonald and Sons demonstrated their experience. When coronavirus hit, work momentarily halted to see how the state of Maryland would regulate outdoor construction. Work soon proceeded, though under extreme caution, with labourers being assigned to individual pieces of equipment and extreme care taken on a daily basis regarding sanitary procedures and social distancing.
The installation numbers are impressive. The new drainage included 156 basins and 38 miles of pipe, everything from two-inch perforated up to 36-inch solids. A new irrigation system designed by Larry Collins included an MCI pump station with a capacity to drive 4,000 gallon per minute across the entire 36-hole site. The new Toro system for the Blue course comprised 37 miles of pipe, 39 miles of communication wire, 460 quick couplers and 2,568 Toro Infinity sprinkler heads.
Fairways went from 25 acres to 46, all of it sodded with a bentgrass blend that was half 007 and half Matchplay. The putting surfaces were all rebuilt to USGA standards at a variable depth, with a 12-inch sand subsurface that was thinned marginally at high spots and thickened marginally in the low areas. In the process the average green got enlarged, from 6,100 square feet to 7,200. They were then seeded to a bentgrass blend that was one part Piranha, one part Coho and two parts 007.
The fairway expansion enabled Green to get very creative with his placement of bunkers, as there is now far more room laterally to create alternative paths from tee to green. Tighter mowing lines into the hazards also enhance their prominence, since a thick collar of rough has been removed from the entry side and balls can more readily roll into sand whereas before they had to fly there.
Bunker design called for a simpler, more classical presentation than had evolved on the course. There had been 98 bunkers, averaging 954 square feet for a total of 93,450; now there are 138 bunkers at an average size of 739 square feet for a total of 102,000. Drainage is handled by the installation of Better Billy Bunker lining.
The look and variety of the bunker placement is enhanced by the cleaner look of the entire site. Congressional reduced its cart path system by about 20 per cent, in the process eliminating the harsh gray asphalt pavement and replacing it with a more exposed aggregate. Perhaps the most dramatic difference is the introduction of 31 acres of fine fescue native areas. The textural contrast with the formally maintained turfed areas now provides a powerful alternative to the old, wall-to-wall groomed look. Congressional at one point used to cross-hatch its fairways, and for the 1997 US Open walk-mowed them from tee to green. Now Wendt will rely upon a traditional block mowing to simplify the presentation.
The par-72 course (par 70 for championship play) got stretched in both directions. The back tees from 7,574 to 7,818 yards; the forward tees from 5,935 to 5,155.
The course won’t reopen until late spring 2021. But a recent October walk through revealed a number of stirring new moments that revealed shots and vistas that were never there or lost for decades. For one thing, you can now see the famed clubhouse from almost everywhere on the course – most dramatically as you approach the infinity-edge green of the 485-yard, par-four fifteenth hole.
By removing superfluous material and mounding behind the greenside bunkering, Green has made the fill pads look as if they are perched slightly just above grade. Yet many of the greens provide run up zones for the mid-handicapper or someone trying to play a deft recovery. At the long par-three second hole, 275 yards from the back, what had been a front right bunker has been snuck towards the tee enough to provide room for a shot that can now use the slope behind the bunker to kick leftwards onto the green.
Green solved one nagging Congressional routing problem. By finding room for a new, short, downhill par-three tenth hole – only 160 yards from the back, to a well-guarded, fall away green and water on the far side – the walk around the course is now seamless.
Classic-age elements include convex mounding on the opening holes and, at the uphill par-three seventh hole, a virtual wall of sand across the front left that evokes the severity of the eleventh at Shinnecock Hills – a course with which Emmet was intimately familiar.
At the uphill, par-four fourteenth hole, 470 yards from the back tee, Green reclaimed an old drainage ditch and quirky mounding in the left rough that abutted an out-of-bounds – clearly not an ideal position. Bail out right off the tee into a safe cove of fairway and a player will then confront a second shot that is blinded by the crest of a little hill that intervenes – something Green anticipated on paper using a topographic map.
At the 610-yard par-five sixteenth, Green opened up the view around and behind the green to make the hole look like it was part of the surrounding community. The sensibility is enhanced by the presence of an ominous bunker complex in the second shot landing area that evokes the spirit of Hell’s Half Acre. Any unease of spirituality is resolved, in effect, by the consoling presence just back and left of the putting surface by Hermon Presbyterian Church, a white clapboard, Gothic Revival house of worship from 1874. It makes for a perfect Currier & Ives moment.
Congressional Blue is now back – not with a vengeance but with subtlety and class. It’s already on the docket for the 2031 PGA Championship and the 2037 Ryder Cup. The way the winds are blowing in Washington DC these days, the talk about Congressional initiative is real.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.