When thousands of spectators walk around Congressional Country Club for the AT&T National next weekend they will notice the endless driving range. They will eye the grandstands bordering every green and a number of tee boxes. They will see the myriad hospitality tents and TV towers and the giant Rolex clocks on the first and 10th holes. More important than all of that, they will see the blue course.
But what will go unseen, buried once more by the tents and the spectators and the hype of the storied blue, is Congressional’s “forgotten hidden gem.”
That’s how the club’s director of golf, John Lyberger, describes the oft-ignored gold course, the poor cousin of the two 18-hole tracks in Bethesda.
“That course lives in the shadow of the blue course,” he said.
It didn’t used to be that way. When the club was founded in the early 1920s by Washington, D.C.’s political elite, architect Devereux Emmet carved out the original design which included a combination of holes from both the current blue and gold courses.
But in April of 1943 in the midst of World War II, the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, took over the club. It wouldn’t be turned over again until three years later, but it exchanged hands with a hefty grant to the tune of $4,000 per month from the federal government.
That money was used in part to hire Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1957 to design a third nine. Born were the 18 holes of the blue course, and so began the slow fade into anonymity for the gold course. Two years later the new and improved blue hosted its first major event, the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
“That’s when the club decided, ‘hey, let’s try to host a U.S. Open,’” Lyberger said.
The United States Golf Association told the higher-ups at Congressional that they needed to provide a more difficult course to hold such a premier event, Lyebeger said.
Touchups were made to the blue course, and in 1964 Congressional hosted its first of three U.S. Opens.
With revenue streams flowing in from the blue, the club was able to purchase a plot of land across Persimmon Tree Road in the 1970s and bring in Ault, Clark & Associates to design the outer nine (holes 6-14) of the gold course. The blue would go on to host two more majors — the PGA Championship in 1976 and U.S. Open in 1997 — as well as the Kemper Open and Senior Open before the gold would receive any major additional work when the club called in architect Arthur Hills in 2000.
Hills touched up the bunkers, tee boxes, and fairways but left the green complexes alone for the most part, Lyberger said. The one green that he did delve into was the 18th, which is now a difficult and photogenic par-3 over water.
The U.S. Open has never been played on the gold course. When most people think of Congressional they imagine the famed blue course. But the Cinderella of the two has had sporadic chances to shine.
It was chosen as one of four courses in the world to host a British Open qualifier in 2004 and would have in 2006 as well had it not been for a deluge that forced it to be moved to a later date and a different venue. It has entertained several Junior World Championship qualifiers as well as the Maryland Amateur in 2010.
“When I first came out I was surprised,” said Congressional PGA apprentice Matt Woodworth. “I thought the blue would be way nicer, but the gold is just as nice. I could honestly see them holding something bigger than [the Maryland Amateur] here.”
Sean Bosdosh, who won the Maryland Amateur on the gold course in 2010, describes it as “a very good test of your skills. Your game’s gotta be in tip top shape to play well there.”
But the two courses are different in as many ways as they are similar. The blue is nearly 400 yards longer from the back tees and, despite the USGA growing the rough to impossible thickness, narrowing the fairways to supermodel thin, and rolling the greens to unfathomable speeds, it still was decimated by Rory McIlroy, who shot an unprecedented 16-under-par at last year’s Open.
The idea of a U.S. Open at the gold course, given its current length, is almost laughable, especially considering the 7,100-yard monster that the USGA turned Olympic Club into for this year’s open, which was held last weekend.
“[Tour players] would have a wedge into every par-4,” Bosdosh said.
But as Woodworth pulled up to the 18th tee box at the gold course, which overlooks the same water that forms a half-moon around the finishing hole on the blue, he shook his head and said:
“I don’t know how this place would ever get old.”