By Dan Reardon
For the fourth time in its 10-year history, the Quicken Loans National will take place without its marquis partner in the field. Tiger Woods, whose foundation is the principal beneficiary of the event, is still trying to reconstruct his game after two back surgeries last fall.
For most of its run, Congressional Country Club has hosted this week’s Tour stop. In its history, the famed Blue Course has been a site not only for the PGA Tour but golf majors, including the PGA Championship (1976) and three U.S. Opens (1964, 1997 and 2011) — the most recent won by Ireland’s Rory McIlroy in record-setting fashion. Since that time, the course has seen significant changes in routing and design by Rees Jones.
At 7569 yards, the par-71 layout will find two players testing their talents as professionals for the first time. Spain’s Jon Rahm and Jordan Niebrugge will be making their mercenary debuts. Rahm, the top-ranked amateur in the world, is coming off a top-25 finish as an amateur last week at the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Niebrugge generated his own major amateur stir a year ago at the Open Championship at St. Andrews. He joined Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Masters Champion Danny Willett in a sixth-place tie at the Old Course, finishing 11-under for the Championship.
Troy Merritt is the reigning champion after a record 266 total that knocked Woods off the list. His third-round 61 is now the tournament’s low-round scoring mark.
CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper is no stranger to Congressional, having covered McIlroy’s win in the U.S. Open five years ago.
This is considered a “classic” course because of its membership over the years and the events it has hosted. What are the design features of Congressional that appeal to you?
It’s a pretty traditional parkland golf course. There is not a ton of movement in the terrain, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s not interesting either. The back nine is definitely more interesting than the front. There is a good movement of holes going in both directions.
The thing I am not as crazy about is the new green complexes, because they are very much [of the] new school kind… If you get it in the wrong section, it can be a very long day. But it’s a very interesting golf course that makes you hit a lot of quality golf shots.
You saw this course testing the field in a major championship with a USGA setup, and this week you see it with a PGA Tour setup. On a percentage basis, what is the level of difficulty between the two.
The last time I was there it was set up a lot like a regular PGA Tour event. In fact, it might be more difficult this week if things start to dry out. In 2011 the fairways were not crazy narrow. It was soft. There was minimum rough. It was not what you would consider a traditional U.S. Open setup. They didn’t get the weather to cooperate, to have warm nights to grow the rough. It was much more like I would anticipate what the players would find this week.
Even though he is not in the field, this is known as Tiger’s tournament. You saw on the women’s Tour with Annika Sorenstam and on the men’s Tour with Tiger how the public judged the quality of the field by whether they were scheduled to play. The PGA Tour now has the new Big Three, plus Dustin and Rickie and others. Is the Tour today where it was before Tiger came along or somewhere in the middle of what it was when Tiger was out here regularly?
It’s the new normal. Tiger had a lot to do with this. He made young boys believe they could do crazy great things. And now you’re seeing the Jordan Spieths, the Justin Thomases. You’re seeing players who got their standards when they were learning the game, and they believed it was doable because they were seeing it on TV.
There isn’t one player out there who defines the field like Tiger came to, but these guys also play a lot more than Tiger did. You could pretty much guarantee every year what Tiger’s schedule would be. These other players are (a) younger and (b) like to play a lot. It makes it great for the Tour because they are out there a lot.
If you were standing on the range advising players working on their games, getting ready for the week, what clubs in their bags would you suggest they should focus on? And what players have the right skill set for the course as we will see it this week?
They have to have a driver and a three wood that is able to be shaped in the proper manner. Given the weather, it’s going to be a guy who puts the ball in play. But it’s also [going to be] somebody who is a very accurate iron player, because, like I said, these are very segmented greens.
Because it is not silly long, and because he is just rounding into form coming off tied for second last week, I certainly would be looking at Jim Furyk. I would look at a guy like Kevin Chappell who has all the shots and a lot of success on this golf course, finishing second there in the U.S. Open in 2011. Kyle Reifers has been playing great golf for the last six weeks. There’s a guy who hits it plenty high enough and is just waiting to break through.
A guy like Bill Haas, he’s a really good fit for this golf course. He drives the ball beautifully. He works the ball in both directions. He gets the ball in the right sections.
It’s a pretty wide-open field, but there are some guys who are really on form right now.
Who should people look at this week who might not be the loudest blip on the radar screen as play gets underway?
There are two interesting stories out there. You have Bud Cauley. He is coming up near the end of his major medical, and he is in good position after having shoulder surgery a year ago. He is coming up toward the end of that, and he is an interesting guy to keep an eye on.
And then Bryson DeChambeau, the same sort of thing. He had a good week last week, but it didn’t count against his numbers. It was a big thing to have a good week, because it let him get more money in the bank and not cost him a start. So he’s maybe a little freer than he has been over these last few weeks. He’s was coming off missing four or five cuts in the last few weeks.
And then there is Patrick Reed. There doesn’t seem to be that much focus on him, but he’s like seventh in the FedExCup standings. He quietly seems to be there all the time, and no one is real ‘rah rah’ about him.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.