The new 18 gives Congressional the one thing it lacked -- a fearsome finish

The new 18 gives Congressional the one thing it lacked — a fearsome finish

The back nine at Congressional Country Club for the 2011 U.S. Open.
Trevor Johnston

Every U.S. Open course has at least one hole that gets your attention. The renovated Blue course at Congressional has two – the 18th hole.

There’s the new 18th, a monster par-4 that played as the 17th hole during the 1997 U.S. Open. And there’s the old 18th hole, an uninspiring uphill par-3 over water that is now the 10th hole, a very inspiring downhill par-3 over water.

These are Congressional’s glamour holes, and they also may be the two holes most likely to cause Open heartbreak. The new 18th is a potential man-eater because it has been lengthened to 521 yards. (Eighteen was 480 yards in ’97.) Since a pond guards the green on the left side and in back, 18 looms as potentially even more dangerous than it was in ’97, when it was the third-most difficult hole, playing to a 4.41 stroke average. The new 18 gives Congressional the one thing it lacked – a fearsome finish.

“We put the tee back as far as we could because Ernie Els hit a five-iron to that green in ’97,” says course designer Rees Jones, who oversaw a recent renovation of Congressional, “and during the AT&T National, guys were hitting nine-irons and wedges in. It’s an appropriate change and a good hole. Is it too far? The 18th will still probably be only a six- or a seven-iron for the big hitters – at least that’s our hope. Now I think the guy who makes par on the last hole is going to win the Open.”

“Eighteen is a penal hole,” says Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie. “At most Opens you really can’t make double bogey on the last hole if you’re smart. At Congressional now you can make double or triple.”

The 18th doesn’t play as long as it measures. The hole runs downhill – about a 50-foot drop – making it more like 480, even less if the fairways are firm. Says not-so-long Mark Wilson, the winner of two PGA Tour events this year, “Wow, 520! Well, I will say that if I hit a good drive in the AT&T and it was firm, I had nine-iron in my hands. I don’t think the USGA wants that in the Open.”

The USGA had hinted that Congressional, which has hosted two previous Opens, would not be awarded another one until it got rid of the par-3 finishing hole, but Jones says noise and crowd control were other factors in making the change. “It was the noise. It bothered the players because the 17th and 18th greens were too close. By reversing the direction of the par-3, it took the noise factor out of play, helped with crowd congestion and connected the 9th and 10th holes much better.”

It was a rare design move to flip the old par-3 18th, which measured 190 yards. The tee was by the water, its green was part way up a hill toward the clubhouse in an amphitheater-like setting. Now the tee is on the hill where the green once was, and the hole is a panoramic downhill par-3 to a green near where the tee used to be. It’s a pretty hole by anyone’s standards and also demanding. At 218 yards the 10th played to a stroke average of 3.16 during the 2009 AT&T National.

“I don’t know exactly where they’ll play that from,” says Wilson. “I usually hit three- or four-iron in the AT&T. You get firm greens in the summer, and man, that’s one scary starting hole.”

Congressional was closed from July 2009 until May 2010 for a renovation that included rebuilding all 18 greens and converting them from poa annua to bentgrass. The greens were built with high-tech gadgetry that allows the maintenance staff to pump excess moisture out and blow air in from underneath to cool them in hot weather. That should help the greens retain some firmness, since they typically have to be watered frequently in high temperatures.

Two other holes will get the players’ attention: The 11th is an uphill par-5 for the members that will play as a 494-yard par-4 for the Open, and the 6th has been converted from a 475-yard par-4 to a reachable 555-yard par-5 (bumping Congressional’s par from 70 in ’97 to 71 next week). At 11 a creek runs down the right side of the fairway, and there’s a pond right of the green. Following up on a suggestion from USGA executive director Mike Davis, Jones shifted the fairway to the right, bringing the creek more into play because the terrain will move tee shots from left to right. Approaches from the right side could flirt with the greenside pond.

At the 6th, Davis will add to his reputation for bringing creativity and aggressive shotmaking opportunities to the Open.