When I first contacted the Congressional Country Club to inquire about being allowed to play as a guest, I learned that the head PGA pro from my home club would need to request & fill out an application form. That was the first time I had encountered such a request. I was quite happy when I heard back that I would be allowed to play. Upon my arrival, I was granted a temporary membership number. I was in good company, if only for a day.
The Congressional Country Club opened in 1924. As you might expect from a country club located within the nation’s capital, past members of the club have included seven former Presidents: Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Ford. Although Clinton’s name was not on the list, pictures of him playing at Congressional were prominently displayed inside the clubhouse. The current initiation fee to join the club is $120,000. In spite of the hefty entrance fee, they have a 10-year wait list for new members to be admitted.
There was a stark contrast in clubs, arriving at the Congressional after having just played the Kinloch Golf Club in Virginia. Kinloch had a single focus on golf. They built an excellent golf course and the club house - - - no pool or tennis courts. The Congressional Country Club represented the other extreme. In addition to the two golf courses, their list of amenities includes an indoor bowling alley, tennis club, one indoor and two outdoor pools, fitness center, paddle tennis, spa, massage services, indoor jacuzzi, grand foyer, grand ballroom, fine dining and overnight guest accommodations.
View of the clubhouse from the hole #18 fairway
The Congressional opened in 1924 and has hosted three U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship tournament. It is an annual stop on the PGA tour with the AT&T National tournament held in early July. Congressional has two 18-hole golf courses: the flagship Blue Course and the Gold Course. The Blue Course has hosted all of the significant golf tournaments at Congressional. The course is often considered among the best 100 courses in the United States; it ranked at 86th on Golf Digest’s 2007 list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses. Naturally, I targeted the Blue Course to play.
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Golf Digest Best-In-State Rank: #1
Date: 25 Apr, tee off at 9:48 AM
Conditions: sunny skies, 7 MPH wind, 64 degrees
Lost balls: 1
Lost balls: 1
Score: 89 on a par 72
My current handicap stands at 11, which means that I am just an OK amateur golfer. I have been scoring lower than almost all of the players I have been paired with. The exceptions to this rule occurred at the Kinloch Golf Club, Colonial Country Club, and Troon North Golf Club. As I approached the 1st tee box, the other two members of my group were already teeing off - - - from the blue tee box. Playing 7,278 yards from the blue tees was more than I was willing to tackle. I immediately knew I would be playing with a couple of good players, I was just hoping to not embarrass myself with a poor score. I did not need to worry long; I chipped in for a par from the green side sand trap on the first hole. If I can’t be good, at least I can be lucky! My luck did not hold out with only two more pars on the front nine for a score of 43.
418-yard par 4 hole #3
View from hole #3 green looking back up the fairway
383-yard par 4 hole #5
488-yard par 4 hole #6 (view of approach shot from the fairway)
544-yard par 5 hole #9
View of hole #9 green from the end of the fairway
There was one interesting home situated along the hole 7 fairway. It was a newer home and quite large. You might expect it to belong to a politician or business man, but you would have drawn the wrong conclusion. The home was built by former heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson. Mike no longer lives in the home; judging from what I have seen him report on TV, his declining net worth likely caused him to sell it.
Mike Tyson's former home
The two men were from Little Rock, Arkansas. They were partners in a business venture selling a new type of construction tape that would enable the reuse of sheet rock and wall studs whenever a building was subsequently renovated. Doug Maelstrom was a lighting contractor in addition to his partnership in the venture. The father of 2-boys and 1-girl, Doug was also a member of the Chenal Country Club in Little Rock where I played on the first day of this April journey. After he asked the name of the member with whom I had played at Chenal, I shocked myself by pulling it up from my memory bank. I guess meeting up with a descendant from the Robert E. Lee family sticks with me a bit longer than average.
The 2nd gentleman from Little Rock was Dave White, who had previously worked in the securities business. When I mentioned the story I had heard from William Roberts Lee (my playing partner in Little Rock), Dave said he had worked with Jack Stevens in the securities business. As you may recall, the story involved Jack asking a new member at Augusta National to wager $50M with one cut of the card deck. Mike agreed with the story as I had heard it with only two minor variations: the friendly card game in the Crow’s Nest involved a wager of $0.50/point (not $1/game) and the $50M wager involved a coin flip (not cutting the deck). Aside from that, the story was the same.
Dave, Caddy Heather, Doug, Caddy Tom standing on hole #11 green
All three of us were joined on the course by two caddies. We did not luck out with the assigned caddies. Tom was originally from Kentucky and had 1-month of experience caddying at the Congressional. Heather was originally from Wisconsin. After attending the University of Iowa for 1-year, she transferred to Purdue. Her tenure at Congressional was only 3-weeks. Their lack of experience was very evident in comparison to the two Caddy Joe’s assigned to me at Kiawah and Pinehurst. Heather provided advice on distance to the pin and obstacles on the course. I stopped asking for her advice on putts after she gave me a line that missed the hole by 3-feet. By contrast, each Caddy Joe would tell me what club to hit after taking into account distance, wind and their observations of my prior club selections. Their advice on putting the greens was dead accurate - they really knew their home courses well. It makes me think I need to find more Caddy Joe’s!
170-yard par 3 hole #10
489-yard par 5 hole #11 (view from the green back up the fairway)
163-yard par 3 hole #13
419-yards par 4 hole #15
420-yards par 4 hole #17 (view of approach shot from the fairway)
We were enjoying our round of golf at Congressional under ideal playing conditions. Doug moved up and started playing from the gold tee boxes with me. I watched in amazement as Dave not only continued to play from the blue tee boxes, but would often walk past the tee markers to the farthest point on the box to hit his tee shot. His desire to challenge himself in this manner became clear as we continued to talk during the round.
Marker for the blue tee boxes
Dave White was a former member of the PGA who spent three years kicking around in the bush leagues of pro golf on the Hooters tour. He quit the tour in early 1997 and headed for home in Little Rock. He found a job as a financial consultant trainee and began was studying for the exam stockbrokers must pass before being allowed to sell securities.
In May, Dave decided to take a last shot at the U.S. Open. He had tried and failed on six previous occasions, and his heart wasn't entirely in it this time either. The night before he was to make the eight-hour drive to Springfield, IL for the regional qualifier, Dave changed his mind and decided to stay home. In the morning he changed his mind again, got in the car and drove 90-miles before turning around. The next day, on the last day of practice rounds, he got up at 4 AM, drove to Springfield and played one practice round before falling into into bed exhausted. Still tired the following morning, he shot a 69 and won a playoff for the fourth and final slot in the sectional. The next qualifying round took place in Columbus, OH where he shot 71-68 to tie for third and earn a place in the field for the U.S. Open. The Open tournament was held on the Blue Course at the Congressional Country Club that year.
Dave finished the first round of the Open on the leader board with an even-par 70. With heightened expectations, he showed plenty of composure in the second round especially during a potential disaster in the middle of the back nine. After bogeying the 13th hole to go one over par for the tournament, Dave hit an approach into the rough on the 14th hole. His next shot flew over the grandstands and nearly onto the 15th tee. His fourth shot landed in more rough and his fifth only made it to the edge of the green, about 20 feet from the hole. As the gallery looked on with dread, Dave pulled out his putter, then changed his mind and decided to use a wedge. His chip rolled into the hole for a double bogey. Dave finished the round at two over par after two more birdies.
Dave’s father was caddying for him during the tournament with other family members watching from the sidelines. They were very proud of his performance as was the First Arkansan Bill Clinton, who beckoned Dave to his box next to the 16th green on Sunday. After missing a 50-foot putt for birdie, Dave sprinted around around a bunker where he was nearly thrown to the ground by Secret Service agents before being allowed to shake hands with the President. After scoring 70-72 in the first two rounds, Dave shot rounds of 73-77 over the weekend to finish the tournament in the 51st position, 16 strokes behind winner Ernie Els.
I now understand why he referred to the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club as the best golf course in America. I also understood why he kept hitting his tee shots from the back of the blue tee boxes. I did not ask him, but I am positive that he went back in time to 1997 and was re-living the tournament in his mind as we played the round.