American golf's premier tournament, the U.S. Open, started Thursday at the illustrious Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C. Congressional's Blue course is a history-laden championship venue, but as in all things in or near the nation's capital, politicking played a role in the club's origins.
Two Republican congressmen from Indiana founded the country club in 1921. The avowed mission of the organization was two-fold, according to a 1924 article in the Washington Post. Superficially, it was to offer sporting amenities to government officials, including members of the U. S. Senate and House and their families.
More importantly, the club would offer the opportunity for congressmen to mingle on the golf course with businessmen and professionals. As the Post described, all concerned could "discuss freely the state of feeling in their respective communities regarding problems awaiting government action." In other words, playing a round of golf with congressmen would allow businessmen to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of the day and lobby about taxes, regulation and international trade laws.
Today's ethics rules on Capitol Hill stifle blatant horse trading on the golf course, but in 1921 Indiana representatives Oscar R. Luhring and Oscar E. Bland felt little restriction in forming a club to promote the influence industry.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate, as well as President Warren Harding, all supported business-friendly policies. To cement the golf-government-lobbyist triangle, Bland and Luhring recruited Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to become the first club president in 1922.
To corner both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the club gave honorary memberships to Harding, former President William Howard Taft, by then chief justice of the Supreme Court, and former President Woodrow Wilson. Upon Harding's 1924 death, Vice President Coolidge picked his membership card along with keys to the White House.
Burnishing further the role of Congressional as a bridge between the Hill and industry, Bland and Luring sold $1,000 life memberships to the country's A-List of tycoons and robber barons. The "names" included Armour, Astor, Baruch, Carnegie, Chrysler, du Pont, Firestone, Guggenheim, Harriman, Hearst and Rockefeller.
Long-time public affairs strategist Timothy Gay of the PR firm Dutko Grayling says the likelihood of an enterprise like the original Congressional being launched today is roughly the same as a snowball's chance of surviving an hour on the Blue course's first tee box. "It ain't happening," says Gay, who has written on golf history as well as handled media relations for the likes of Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-West Va.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) and clients from almost every industry.
"Look, Washington is not only super-polarized right now," observed Gay. "It's super-sensitive to any appearance of impropriety. Nobody who wants to survive the next election cycle would even think about founding a golf club to promote a cozier relationship between business and government."
The current club members certainly understand Gay's point. It has been years since the club had a Congress-centric emphasis. "Congressional is a family-oriented club now," said general manager Michael Leemhuis.
The distinguished golf course architect Devereux Emmet laid out the initial course on the original 406-acre tract. The first nine opened in 1922, and the second in June of 1923. Both the front and back featured a par-6 opening hole.
A club officer, Lt. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, assisted Emmet and the construction crews. A military aide to Harding and then Coolidge, Sherrill also was the director of public buildings and parks in Washington D.C. Working three sides of the street today would raise an eyebrow.
Congressional celebrated its formal opening with a grand bash for 7,000 on May 23, 1924. Accompanied by the Marine Band, the club president, Representative Joseph Hines (R-Ohio) welcomed Cal and Grace Coolidge. Other guests who packed the million-dollar facility included cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, admirals and generals, foreign diplomats, and, of course, U. S. representatives and senators. Following another long-standing Washington tradition, traffic was horrid.
The next day Congressional staged a celebratory 4-ball match headlined by the future Hall of Famer Gene Sarazen. The diminutive player, born Eugenio Saraceni, teamed with the equally wee Fred McLeod, an ex-patriot Scot who had won the 1908 U. S. Open and was the pro at nearby Columbia Country Club. They beat Congressional's first pro, James Crabbe, and the reigning national amateur champion, Max Marston.
But the party didn't last long and despite the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, Congressional began suffering financial woes in 1925. "Relative prosperity," a term in the club's own history, returned in the late 1920s, but the Great Depression didn't spare Congress' own. By the late 1930s, dues checks were bouncing like golf balls on a cart path.
In 1940, the club's lien holder foreclosed and held a public auction of the club's assets. Several members reorganized themselves as Congressional Country Club, Inc. and offered the sole bid of $270,000. The dream of congressmen rubbing elbows with business moguls turned into a nightmare of rubbing two dimes together.
Perhaps to the chagrin of the Republican members, the government came to the rescue. A year into World War II, the Office of Strategic Services leased club facilities for the duration. The golf course became a training ground for spies and commandos as the OSS blossomed into the CIA's precursor. "Good shot" took on a whole new meaning.
The combined payment of $307,000 from Uncle Sam for rent and post-war golf course restoration gave new financial life to the remaining members. The club paid off its mortgage and then rode the 1950s economic expansion into country club respectability.
Also in the post-war period, Congressional began working to attract top-flight tournaments with the best players. It was then that the club started one of its major themes for the past 60 years -- making and remaking the golf course in hopes of hosting major championships.
The architects engaged to work on Congressional have been among golfdom's finest -- Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones and son Rees, George and Tom Fazio, and Arthur Hills. Ross worked on the original 18 in the 1930s, the uncle-nephew Fazio team and Hills modified the members' Gold course, while the Joneses have kept up by overseeing repeated renovations of the championship Blue course.
The continuing fiddling with the Blue first yielded the 1959 U. S. Golf Association Women's Amateur. The first men's major on the Blue course was the 1964 U. S. Open. Its demanding 36-hole final day played in scorching temperatures severely tested the heat-stroked winner, Ken Venturi. The 1976 PGA Championship soon followed.
In 1988, Rees Jones took over from Trent and began his lengthy relationship with Congressional. Called the "Open Doctor" for his shaping of courses for USGA's shiniest crown, Rees prepped the Blue for the 1995 Senior Open, the 1997 U.S. Open, and most recently, this week's championship.
Long separated from its politically based origins and Depression-era problems, Congressional is one of America's premier private golf clubs. The Blue course is a perennial pick for Top 100 golf course lists -- Golf Digest has it as number 77, GolfLink at 36. Congressional can certainly justify its six-figure initiation fee in view of its golf reputation and major championship chops.
The Congressional staff reports that no sitting U. S. representatives or senators belong to the club, although 10 long-time members are former congressmen.
Congressional welcomed Tiger Woods' PGA Tour event, the AT&T National, from 2007 to 2009. The tournament shifted to Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia for 2010 and 2011 during Rees Jones' latest renovation of the Blue course.
The Washington Post reported that in 2008, a year before Tiger's marital unpleasantness erupted, Congressional members approved hosting the AT&T National for three additional years, 2012-2014, with an option for three more later. Considering the 2008 approval passed by only 37 votes among the 1,500 members, the future of the event at Congressional will be a matter of debate within the club's grill and locker rooms.
Postscript. Representatives Bland and Luhring both lost in the tumultuous 1922 midterm elections. Dissatisfied with the recession of 1920-21, voters vented their frustration on the Republican-led House and Senate. The GOP saw its majority edge shrink from 166 seats to 20. The Republican differential in the Senate dropped from 24 to 10. Harding appointed Bland to a federal judgeship, and Luhring eased into a political appointee position at the labor department. Golf clubs may change, but Washington political traditions such as midterm election revolts, revolving door politics and lobbying are constant.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.