I’m back to the PGA Tour after playing on the European Tour in the last few weeks. This week I am in Washington D.C. for the Booz Allen Classic. It is the build up to the U.S. Open which will be played next week. The course for this years Booz Allen event is Congressional, the venue of the 1997 U.S. Open. Everybody remembers the 1997 U.S. Open because it was Ernie Els’s first major win and because of the drama that unfolded on the 71st hole with Ernie, Monty and Tom Lehman all in contention. Ernie hit it close and effectively sealed his win there.
1997 U.S. Open
I remember it for a different reason. It was my first American major, it was only my second year on Tour and I had qualified from my ranking on the European Tour. I came over and in time honoured tradition I tried to do too much in the practice days (not like me!!!). As a result of my over practice in the searing heat I managed to get sun stroke, which was not how I wanted my first American major to start! On top of all this I thought that the course was the toughest course that I had ever played. I struggled all week with the difficulty of it and I missed the cut. I came away from the week knowing that I couldn’t continue to play golf the way I had been. I sat down after the week and went through what I needed to do and decided that I needed to change my swing; this was the start of my swing reconstruction.
Eight years later and I am back at the same venue for a different event. A lot has happened during the years in between. I have reconstructed my swing and am now a totally different player. I was looking forward to coming back here so that I could see how far I had come. While I can make some judgments, it is hard to compare as that course was set up differently. For starters it seems shorter due to technology, it is also played as a par 71, the fairways are softer and the rough is lighter. However this does not take away from how good a golf course this is.
It is a fantastic old style course. All the holes are tree lined with quick sloping greens. There are no weak holes; everyone of them poses a threat and nearly every hole has some sort of elevation change. On some holes such as the 11th it is very subtle, only 2 yards downhill and on others such as the 17th it is 10 yards downhill. All these elevation changes make it that little bit harder to get approach shots pin high. There is no doubt that the most exciting holes will again be the 17th and 18th. These are the holes that most people remember from 1997.
The 17th is a 466 yard par 4. It plays downhill so it doesn’t play its full distance. In 1997 I remember hitting 3 iron into this green - this year in practice I have been hitting 8 and 9 irons. It is probably one of the toughest holes you can play as your 71st hole if you are in contention. There is water from the front left and all the way around the green, the second shot plays 10 yards downhill and the green has a ridge running up the middle of it. This hole could decide the winner this week. No matter what club you are hitting in here you will be happy with a par.
The 18th is a 200 yard par 3 over water, not a hole that you want to finish on. There is very little margin for error and I expect to see the pin tight to the water all week. This hole has the potential to cause serious trouble if it plays into the wind.
These are the two of the toughest finishing holes that you can play as the water is very tight to the green and invariably someone needs to make a birdie on the last day. As such you are inches from being a hero!
I have taken it very easy this week as the temperature has been around 34 degrees. I didn’t want to get caught again with sun stroke. I have played the course twice and kept my range time to a minimum. As I was saying, it is a different proposition to 1997 but it will still be a great test. The greens will get fast as the week goes on and the fairways will dry out. Come Sunday it should be more like I remember it.
I am looking forward to getting started and seeing how it plays in tournament condition. As it is the week before the U.S. Open, they have attracted a great field. I am playing with Stewart Cink and Mark Hensby at 12.30 pm on Thursday (5.30 pm Irish time) and 7.30 am on Friday (12.30 pm). I am happy with how everything has gone in the last few weeks and also this week in practice. Hopefully I can get myself into contention come Sunday and see what happens from there.