Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 4:35 p.m.
By Leonard ShapiroCSNwashington.com
At the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, Mike Davis spent most of his working days as a U.S. Golf Association official working on matters outside the gallery ropes. Still, one of his more vivid memories of that week was the incredibly punishing, five-inch rough that strangled the hopes of so many players, including an extremely frustrated 21-year-old Tiger Woods, who tied for 19th place in his first Open as a professional.
When I look at 97, what sticks in my mind more than anything was that rough, Davis, the new executive director of the USGA, recalled earlier this week. It was long, dark green, tacky and so penal. All you could do was hack it out of there into the fairway and take your medicine. One of the messages we took away is that we certainly dont want that this time around at Congressional.
Woods more than most often found himself buried in the lush, strangling spinach. Davis still remembers watching Woods and plenty of other prominent players as they tried and frequently failed to save par from so many buried lies. This time, he said, that particular torture will not be the enduring memory of the 2011 Open contested at the same storied Bethesda venue.
If they get the ball off the fairway, we want them to experience a variety of lies, Davis said. If its close to the fairway, the rough will be short enough to play a shot. We will allow you to show your recovery shot. And when that happens, you still might be able to birdie the hole, but you might also bring in the possibility of a bogey or double if you cant hold the green.
A month ago, Davis, 46, was named to succeed retiring longtime executive director David Fay as the USGAs top executive, a particularly popular choice all around the wide world of golf. Davis has acknowledged being somewhat reluctant about dropping his duties as the senior director of rules and competitions, a position he held since 2005 that included the responsibility of course set-up at the Open and other USGA national championships.
To its credit, the USGAs executive committee included that course set-up role in his job description as executive director, making his decision to accept a no-brainer.
In 2006, it was Davis who decided to radically alter the nature of U.S. Open rough. Instead of one uniform length all around, he wanted it cut to a graduated height, with shorter grass closer to the fairways that got longer and longer the farther away from the fairway a ball landed. That will be the style used on the Blue course in mid-June, and Davis, as usual, will be large and in charge of the Congressional set-up, one of the great joys of his job.
Davis work at past Opens has received almost universal praise from the players who must deal with his decisions on length of rough, width of fairways, speed of greens and location of tees and flagsticks. His set-ups have been considered difficult, an Open prerequisite forever, but also exceedingly fair, which has not always been the case.
At Congressional, he has all manner of options at his disposal. There will be eight newly constructed tee boxes available for the tournament, in addition to all the previous tee locations. And 18 totally reconstructed greens will allow him many more choices for hole locations on putting surfaces. Barring excessive rain, the greens should be far firmer than they were in 1997 and cut to warp speed, perhaps as high as 13 12 to 14 on the Stimpmeter. In comparison, green speed in 97 was generally in 11 12 to 12 12.
When Ernie Els won the 97 Open, the course played to a par of 70 and measured 7,213 yards. This year, par will be 71, with the length at a robust 7,574, which obviously will change daily depending on which tees Davis and his staff decide to use on any given round. In 97, the 18th hole was a par 3. This year, that totally reconstructed hole will be No. 10, and the courses scenic signature 17th will instead be lengthened and play as No. 18.
The added stroke will be at Congressionals No. 6, a par 4 in 1997 and 1964. Course designer Rees Jones added another 100 yards to the hole, making it a 555-yard par 5 for the Open and a true risk-reward option for any adventurous player who tries to reach the water-surrounded green in two shots.
I remember in 97 it was a very long par 4, and I couldnt stand it, Davis said. There was a pond in front of the green, and it seemed unfair to me to have the players try to rifle 4- and 5-irons in there on a green that wasnt really designed for that kind of shot. Now, theres a real option there as a par 5, and you dont always have to play it right at the hole.
A new tee also can stretch the par 5 No. 9 to a bodacious 636 yards, making it virtually impossible to reach in two shots, particularly with a ravine that drops 30 feet in front of the green. A true three-shotter, is what Davis likes to call it.
Last week, he visited Congressional to see how the course survived a tough winter and was delighted with what he observed.
It looked great, exactly where it needed to be at this time of year, he said. When the club decided to rebuild all the greens after the last AT&T event in July 2009, it was not the USGAs decision to do that. They just felt their greens werent really built to last the D.C. summers.
We were a little nervous about it because it was just such a short window between the rebuild and the Open. But they did a great job, and those greens came through the winter with flying colors. The course will be much better for the members in the summer weather and better for the Open, too. These will be true U.S. Open greens.
And will it be a true U.S. Open outcome, with the winning score just a few strokes under par? Davis knows all too well that weather that week surely will determine how low (or high) scores will go. The drier and firmer the golf course, the tougher it will be. The wetter the better for players to take dead aim at flags on soft and receptive greens, leading to far more birdies in bunches.
Who does it favor? Davis said in response to a question. Someone who hits a long, high ball would be generally true for Congressional. Someone who hits it longer and can come into these greens with a high shot is always at an advantage. There are always horses for courses at any Open, and I think the same could hold true there. But its the U.S. Open, and, honestly, you just never know.
Contact Shapiro at Badgerlen@aol.com.