BETHESDA, MARYLAND | Forget everything you remember about the famed Blue Course at Congressional Country Club. Whatever you recall – beyond the classic features of the magnificent Spanish Revival clubhouse and the 18th green jutting into the pond beneath it – doesn’t exist anymore. Like old Yankee Stadium, the address where great things happened is essentially the same but the new and improved venue is incomparable.
In ol’ Blue’s place is the New Blue – a course better in every conceivable way from the first shot to the last. Architect Andrew Green retained only two elements of the former layout – the routing and the par on each hole. Beyond that, he’s taken a course that habitually clung to the lower half of U.S. top-100 lists and transformed it into a legitimate destination course outside the nation’s capital.
“To have a golf course that measures up to the weight of Congressional and the clubhouse, it’s really good,” says Jason Epstein, the club’s director of golf and athletics. “The golf course is now, and will be for a long time, the star of that show.”
That is not something anyone ever believed before despite Congressional’s long history of championship golf that includes playing host to four major championships and two former PGA Tour events. In all its previous incarnations, the old Blue was an experience that never really lived up to its reputational ranking.
Golf began at Congressional in 1924 on a sparsely treed lot with a course designed by Devereux Emmet that included an opening par-6. After World War II, Robert Trent Jones Sr. was hired to spruce up the original nine and build a third nine, creating the familiar downhill par-4 to a peninsula green and closing par-3 on his new stretch. Two years later, RTJ re-routed the front nine to complete what the world knew as Congressional Blue. His son, Rees Jones, handled renovations in 1989 and 2006.
(Click on No. 11 images below to enlarge and for caption information.)
Some variation of that course played host to three U.S. Opens (1964, 1997 and 2011), a PGA Championship (1976), a Senior U.S. Open (1995), eight Kemper Opens (1982-2005) and seven National’s hosted by Tiger Woods (2007-16). It’s where Ken Venturi and Rory McIlroy broke through for majors and where Greg Norman collected his first PGA Tour win in 1984. Its register of champions includes Hall of Famers Ernie Els and Fred Couples and 12 major champs including Woods, Tom Weiskopf, Craig Stadler, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose.
So why relegate all that history to newsreels by blowing up the course and building something completely different? The reason, in a word – fundamentals. What worked in the 1920s wasn’t working anymore on a course constrained by trees and heavy clay soil. The fairways had been built in lows with the greens on highs, causing all sorts of liabilities with cart paths and mounding impeding natural drainage. Towering hardwoods and pines blocked sunlight and wind and made keeping the course properly conditioned a constant (and often losing) challenge.
Even worse, the architecturally repetitive green complexes were uninspiring. “One of my long impressions of the old Blue was I always felt like you were playing uphill all day long,” said Green. “It seemed like every shot was a long iron uphill and do whatever you could to get it up and on the putting surface.”
Members at the club don’t argue that frank assessment.
“We have this club that is deep-rooted in its traditions from the 1920s and you have the weight of this clubhouse and the weight of this championship tradition,” said Epstein, “but when you went out to the golf course it was very single-dimensional in the way you played it.”
That was illustrated in the comments of the last PGA Tour winner there in 2016, Billy Hurley.
As Epstein recalls it, Hurley said, “the reason I won here was I didn’t have to think. All I had to do was throw the ball up in the air and I knew it was going to come down soft. There’s only one way to play Congressional and that’s easy for me.”
Understanding that it needed major infrastructure changes to address its fundamental flaws, Congressional saw an opportunity to do something even more dramatic. Thousands of trees were removed – not secretly in the middle of the night like at Oakmont but with thoughtful consideration to ordinances and constant dialogue with local authorities. The open course more resembles its origins, with sweeping views from one end of the property to the other and the clubhouse visible from every hole.
Fairways nearly doubled in size from 25 to 46 acres, creating strategic choices off the tees. Green complexes grew from 2.5 acres to 3.5 acres, often more wide than deep (or vice versa) with open fronts that invite using the ground for approach shots into beguiling slopes, tiers and falloffs in every direction that didn’t exist on the old course. Bunkering increased from 98 to 138 – most with tightly mown entry points for balls to easily roll into instead of being situated in the rough – with clever placement across the expanded fairway widths to create more strategic challenges.
“As I compare the new to the old, there’s not one hole on the new course that isn’t better than the old course.” – Michael Smith, Congressional member
And where there were once so many trees defining every hole there are now 40 acres of fescue and native areas adding beautiful contrasts on a course that can now stretch as long as 7,818 yards.
But those numbers only tell a superficial story of the entertaining course Andrew Green has presented. It goes beyond the technical upgrades of his celebrated restoration work at Inverness, Oak Hill and Scioto. At Congressional, Green built character and nuance that simply didn’t exist on the old Blue.
“As I compare the new to the old, there’s not one hole on the new course that isn’t better than the old course,” said Michael Smith, a Congressional member who served on the committee that selected Green.
Congressional had originally hired Keith Foster to handle the makeover, but fired him in December 2018 just days after Foster pled guilty for illegally transporting items made from wildlife including endangered species. About 30 architects applied in an emergency casting call to take over a project that was scheduled to start in 2019.
Green put together his proposal on short notice, but he had an intimate knowledge of the course having raked bunkers during the 1995 Senior Open and walk-mowed fairways during the 1997 U.S. Open. That gave him an informed vision for the property’s potential.
“I could see the holes sitting on the ground and it was just trying to share the message of what I thought it could be,” Green said. “It was more the idea of opening their minds to all the variety I saw as possibilities.”
One particular possibility separated his bid from the rest – converting the par-3 10th into a short downhill one-shotter by moving the green back across the pond to the same nub of land it used to sit on when it originally played in the opposite direction.
(Click on No. 10 images below to enlarge and for caption information.)
“His vision for 10 really stood out to me,” said Smith. “He said that a short par-3 is always good to have, like Pebble Beach No. 7. … No one else who made a presentation had an idea like that. I felt we were going to get something special and we did.”
Green transformed the hole from a long forced-carry over water to thoughtful downhill short-iron ranging from 100 to 150 yards with trouble on three sides. The new location also made the walk from the ninth green to 10 and then the 11th tee seamless.
“When I walked off the ninth green I could see that 10th green sitting down on that peninsula,” Green said. “I just thought it added such a dimension. So many great courses have thoughtful short par-3s and I thought it was a unique presentation.
“When you see the number and have a short club in your hand, you’re empowered to score well and hit it close. But as you stand over the ball you realize don’t miss it right, don’t miss it long, don’t miss it short. You have a lot going through your head. It’s a more interesting test than just trying to carry a water hazard.”
But that’s just one small piece of the variety and fun Green created. A big favorite among the members is No. 5, which Epstein said was regarded as a “weak” hole but – along with the new 14th and its 53-yard deep, multi-terraced green – “could be great holes on any course in America now.”
By moving the green on the par-4 fifth significantly to the right, the approach now plays downhill to a green that slopes sharply away from front to back – a test similar in demand to the opening hole at Oakmont.
“I was looking for any opportunity to play downhill or a different kind of shot,” Green said. “As a player I love the idea of landing shots short and watching them use the contour to funnel to hole locations.”
The difficult 15th presents a similar challenge, only this time with a blind uphill shot over a ridge to an infinity green that tilts away from you toward the majestic clubhouse in the distance. It’s the kind of pleasantly quirky hole you’d more likely find in Scotland or Ireland.
(Click on No. 15 images below to enlarge and for caption information.)
“It’s a hole that’s talked about,” Green said. “The 15th hole is a way to play uphill to have a downhill approach to land it short and let it roll on instead of playing the number. It’s an interesting opportunity to not have that same old feeling.”
Green also worked wonders on the new 11th and 12th holes, which now share a fairway that horseshoes seamlessly from one to the next. The old par-5 No. 11 required no imagination, a straightaway hole with a small pond right of the green keeping aggressive players honest. With trees removed and space opened up on the right, it now features a split fairway bisected longitudinally by a creek, with the green moved flush to the right side of it. The left fairway tilts toward the water, adding some intriguing stances for anyone trying to decide which line to attack with the second shot.
That shift provided more room on 12 to restore the natural contour of the land to create a beautiful par-4 that sweeps right to left around a bunker complex and encourages use of the ground – a dramatically more strategic and aesthetically pleasing hole than the original.
“We made it feel more like a natural ridge and pushed the green back to get that beautiful bend,” Green said.
“What I hope they see is a golf course that matches the caliber of the club that they have,” Green said. “It’s interesting and different and plays differently every day.” – Andrew Green
Put together, the new Blue’s front nine has been elevated in substance with its back, including a challenging stretch from Nos. 2-5 and a driveable par-4 eighth hole that can sucker aggressors with a right-side pin. The finish remains relentless from the 14th onward, with the 600+ par-5 16th featuring the postcard 150-year-old white clapboard Presbyterian church more prominently behind the green. The familiar 18th hole is even more daunting with its fairway steeply pitched from high right toward a creek at the bottom awaiting anything that leaks too far left.
“Really, you’ve taken a golf course that was single-dimensional and made it a three-dimensional chess,” said Epstein. “From the tee shot, where do you place it, what bunkers you’ll challenge, which side of the fairway where you’ll miss it. … Shot values are through the roof on every hole. There’s not one shot that hasn’t gotten better.”
After re-opening in June, the new Blue is ready to start making its own history. It’s already on the docket for eight PGA of America events including the 2022 and 2027 KPMG Women’s PGA Championships, 2031 PGA Championship and the 2037 Ryder Cup.
“What I hope they see is a golf course that matches the caliber of the club that they have,” Green said. “It’s interesting and different and plays differently every day. Holes with character and are recognizable with different shots being asked of the players. I think it’s more memorable in that way.”
The women will get the first crack at it next June and Congressional is eager to show it off.
“We’re really excited to share it with the world,” Epstein said. “The membership is really proud of it. I don’t think it should be something we keep to ourselves. It’s a gift.”
Top: Congressional Blue’s 18th and 10th holes as they look today. Photo: James Lewis, Courtesy Congressional Country Club
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