The first thing that strikes you about Congressional is its grandeur and historical presence. I am not sure if it is the largest clubhouse in the country, but it has to be close (perhaps TPC Sawgrass is larger--my host told me, but I cannot remember). And, inside this massive clubhouse, there are countless artifacts from golf's past. Five presidents--Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover--were among the early members. One of the best bars I have ever seen in a clubhouse--the Founders Pub--pays homage to these founding members (other notable members, according to ever reliable Wikipedia, include Eisenhower, Ford, Vince Lombardi, Rockefeller, Charlie Chaplin, Hearst, J.C. Penney, Carnegie, and Ken Venturi). As much as I loved Cal Club's bar, Congressional's might be better when you account for the view of the golf course and the pool just outside the bar. I imagine there must be some mind boggling statistic about the number of historical items in this clubhouse (like if you spent 30 seconds looking at every item it would take you a year to see everything). That's the history. The grandness comes from the scale of everything--tons of space, bowling alleys, pools, bars, restaurants, fitness center, tennis, and I am sure many other amenities I'm not thinking of. To the extent you are looking for a five star hotel in a clubhouse, this may be the closest you come.
And the general feel of the place mirrors the golf course very well--big, full of historical moments given the many tournaments held here, and nothing flashy (just classy). Before I played the round, I feared that Congressional may be what many describe as a stereotypical "championship" course that is hard for an average golfer to appreciate. In other words, long, tough, and narrow, but not a ton to marvel at. And, to be honest, the first few holes felt a bit like that. However, both my brother and I agreed that once we arrived at the 9th hole, the course really took off. The final ten holes were among the best stretch of golf holes I have played. And the course achieves this greatness in different ways. A few of those holes incorporate a lake, others have fun greens, one has an enormous swale in front of the green, while another utilizes a stream. There are not many courses that are able to be great in such a diverse way.
One of the ways a golf course makes a lasting impression is with memorable holes. Congressional certainly has a few that will stand out in my memory. The 10th is a par three over water with a huge American flag in the background, the 11th is a brute of a hole with a small little lake protecting the green, the 13th is a par three with one of the more fun greens I have been on, and the 18th is one of the strongest closing holes in golf as it comes back towards the clubhouse and the lake that came into play on 10. Some courses are really good because every hole is strong and there are very few lackluster holes, but those courses miss out on having the truly memorable holes that will stick with you. Other courses, and I think Congressional falls into this category, are really good because, despite having some lackluster holes, there are some truly awesome holes you will never forget. I think I would take the latter category every time. Sure, I can barely remember the third hole at Congressional, but I will never forget the 10th hole. And, as my golfing experiences continue to accumulate, I tend to focus on amazing holes, rather than the overall strength of a course--my brain simply does not have room to remember every holes of every course.
Now, onto some individual holes.
1st--378 yard par four.
The first is a fairly straightforward par four, slight dogleg left. The real difficulty comes from having to hit a narrow fairway pinched on both sides by bunkers.
Approach to the first green.
2nd--184 yard par three.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this uphill par three with some good greenside bunkering. Here is a look at the hole from above. The course has a fairly tame beginning with the first being the 11th hardest hole and the second being the 15th hardest.
3rd--418 yard par four.
The third is a tough hole at 418 yards and a bit uphill. Like most of the holes here, the fairways are pretty tight and the rough is long. So, if you are missing the fairway, not only will your drive get no roll on this long hole, but you will likely be left whacking it out short of the green.
4th--414 yard par four.
The fourth is rated as the toughest on the course. Unfortunately, I ,missed a picture of this one as well. However, it runs back parallel to the third and is fairly similar--long and winding with a tight landing area.
5th--383 yard par four.
The fifth is a fun hole, especially after the two beasts at three and four. It is a strong dogleg left with bunkers down the left side. As you might imagine, the more you cut the corner, the more difficult the carry. The green is protected by bunkers and a bit of a false front.
Approach to five.
6th--488 yard par five.
Even at only 488 yards, this is the fifth hardest hole on the course, but one of my favorites. I am a bit surprised by the rating because it is indeed so short (even the tips are only 544 yards). Even if you hit the rough and only go 230 with your drive and 150 with your layup, you only have 100 yards into this green. But, that is where it gets tricky. The entire right side of the green is surrounded by water and thin your shot over the back and you are in the water too (though there is about 15 yards of room over the back, so this should not be a problem absent a particularly bad shot). Then, throw into the mix that the left side of the green is a bit blocked out by a tree. The hole is all about whether you can hit a delicate wedge with confidence to a small target surrounded by water.
Approach to six.
Birdhouse behind sixth green. This water that you see is what sits behind the sixth green. The green pictured here is the 18th hole on Congressional's Gold Course, which we did not play, but this hole looked like a ton of fun.
7th--157 yard par three.
Coming in as the second easiest hole on the course, the difficulty on this short par three comes from the two tiered green. Again, I failed to get a picture of this one.
8th--345 yard par four.
The difficulty of the eighth comes from a green protected by five bunkers. It is among the easier holes on the course, so hopefully you make up some ground by following up a good score on seven with another on eight.
Greenside bunker on eight.
9th--544 yard par five.
This is where the course picks up steam and does not look back. The first and second shots are fairly straightforward, but the approach to the green is over a cavernous swale (if you routinely go for par fives in two, you may rethink this one).
Second shot on nine.
Approach to nine.
Looking back down nine over the swale.
10th--170 yard par three.
This is probably my favorite hole on the course. Par three completely over water to a wide, but narrow green. Quite disappointed in having put my tee shot to about 20 feet and then three putting. In the right portion of the picture you can see the eighteenth green.
11th--489 yard par five.
This is not a flashy hole, but it is a strong, memorable one. You feel the pinched fairway on both your first and second shots because of the tree-lined fairway and stream up the right.
Approach to eleven.
Small pond on right side of eleventh green that feeds the stream running down the fairway.
12th--372 yard par four.
It is difficult to appreciate in photos why this hole is fun. It is a short dogleg left par four that is one of the best scoring opportunities on the course. I always enjoy short, abrupt dogleg holes (with the second at Bethpage being another example). Unlike much of the rest of the course, 11, 12, and 13 are secluded holes where you feel removed from other groups, which is only enhanced by the fairly thick forest surrounding these holes.
Approach to twelve.
13th--163 yard par three.
Here it is, the easiest hole on the course. Not only is it fun because it is your best shot at a birdie, but this is one of the more insane greens I have ever played. The day we played, the pin was front left. Hit it anywhere ten yards right of the hole and it will funnel back down. If you find yourself too far right on this green, it will almost certainly be a three putt given the steep ridge that bisects the green down the middle.
14th--408 yard par four.
This was my least favorite hole on the back--long, uphill, tough, and not a lot that was particularly noteworthy. Maybe it was just that the hole did not match the level of the holes in the previous stretch from 9 to 13.
Approach to fourteen.
15th--419 yard par four.
Back to back tough holes here in fourteen and fifteen. Fifteen, though, is a great hole. Fairly generous landing area for your drive, which is helpful on this long hole where the second is significantly uphill and has to carry a healthy set of bunkers.
Just how steep the approach is to fifteen green.
16th--550 yard par five.
Sixteen has one of the best green complexes on the course, but it punished me. The green is protected by four bunkers on the right and one large bunker on the left. The kicker is that the green is a bit crowned off the back such that any long balls will funnel down a steep bank and leave a tough chip, especially with bunkers looming for any chip hit too strongly. Not only that, but the steep embankment leads down to pine needles, so good luck chipping off of those with any accuracy.
Great view from the sixteenth tee--eighteenth green on the left, clubhouse in the middle, and tenth green on the right.
Bunkers leading up to sixteen.
View from over the sixteenth green.
17th--420 yard par four.
This was another hole where it became interesting at the green. This time, four bunkers on the left and one large bunker on the right. The green itself has a pretty heft ridge running through it.
Approach to seventeen.
18th--425 yard par four.
One of the better closing holes I have played. It is one of those holes where you really want to hit a good shot because you realize how memorable of a hole it is. This time, I failed in playing the memorable hole well, and, because of that, don't have the best of pictures. The hole ends with a green that juts out like a peninsula into the lake. Long or left is water, while the bunkers will likely catch shots that go right. From what I remember, the play for me was to land a shot a bit short of the green, let it catch the slope, and chase on up there. The combination of the gorgeous lake and the clubhouse looming in the background makes for a spectacular finish.
Approach to eighteen.
Eighteenth green taken from sixteenth tee, but it gives a good perspective of the eighteenth green.
There is a reason so many PGA tournaments find their way to Congressional--it is tough, but fair. But, in my book, being suitable to test the pros does not necessarily make the course enjoyable for everyone. It should still be fun and have some really jaw dropping holes, which Congressional has. The sixth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, fifteenth, and eighteenth are all memorable holes that will be filed away in my brain as all-world golf holes. Throw in some beauty with that lake and unreal clubhouse, and you have one heck of a golf course. And, yea, the place has a fun vibe. Would love to regularly spend the morning golfing and the rest of the day just wasting away doing one of the great many things available in the clubhouse.