Congressional will challenge Open field

Congressional will challenge Open field
May 2, 2011, 7:59 pm
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By John EisenbergStaff WriterCSNbaltimore.com
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On Monday, the U.S. Golf Association brought in Graeme McDowell, the Northern Irishman who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last year, for a media day event at Congressional Country Club, where McDowell will defend his title next month.

Before he met with reporters, McDowell played the course for the first time in an early morning practice round. He posted his opinion on Twitter long before he dropped his last putt.

No-one will break par, he tweeted somewhere along the way.

Meeting with reporters later, McDowell smiled and said: The front nine beat me up a little bit. I got going a little better after that.

Thescenario he suggested in his tweet is hardly a stretch of the imagination. This will be the third time the Open has been played at Congressional, and the course was a daunting test for the field both prior times. Only three golfers broke par for 72 holes when Ernie Els won in 1997, and Ken Venturi was the only golfer to break par when he won in 1964.

Even among the rotation of famously difficult courses the USGA uses for the Open, Congressional is viewed as a stern challenge, and it will be that much tougher this time because it has been lengthened by almost 300 yards since Els won.

Its official length for 2011 is 7,643 yards a staggering number.

Its a big golf course, said Mike Davis, the USGA executive director who is in charge of setting up courses for the Open.

The course is so much longer now that it actually plays to a par 71, as opposed to the 70 that served as par when Venturi and Els won. The additional stroke was added at the 555-yard sixth hole, which the USGA deemed fairer as a par-5 instead of the par-4 it had been.

Playing a hole of that distance as a par-4 was really over the top, Davis said . The guys who play are good but not that good.

Unfortunately for the golfers, the USGA didnt offer similar relief at the 494-yard 11th or the 523-yard 18th, both of which remain brutal par-4s.

The 11th is so long that McDowell thought he had hit from the wrong tees when he played it Monday morning.

I hit a really good drive and still had 240 yards to the pin, he said. I thought maybe that wasnt the right tee.

It was, Davis told him with a thin smile.

And the magnificent 18th is the one of the toughest finishing holes anywhere, McDowell said. It may be the toughest golf hole Ive ever played. I hit a great drive today and still had 230 to the pin.

Birdies wont come easily.

Dont misunderstand: McDowell wasnt complaining the layout is unfair. To the contrary, he seemed impressed by the historic surroundings. Congressional opened in 1924 and has hosted other national championships such as the U.S. Junior Amateur (in 1949), the U.S. Womens Amateur (in 1959), the Senior Open (in 1995) as well as a regular PGA Tour stop for decades.

It has a real old-school feel to it, a really traditional feel, he said. There are big, mature trees all the way around the golf course. I love the way it sets up. Its a beautiful-looking golf course. You really feel like youre playing a quality golf course. Obviously, theres been a huge amount of yardage added over the years. It still manages to flow quite well.

After winning the Open last June, McDowell, 32, went on to have a huge year, delivering the decisive point in Europes Ryder Cup victory and beating Tiger Woods in the final of a world match play event.

Dream stuff, he said.

But the living won't be easy when he defends his title at Congressional next month. He shot even par to win at Pebble Beach, and Congressional is 600 yards longer.

Its not going to be a lot of fun, he said ruefully. But its an honor to defend a major title at a place like this. Well give it a run.