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Commentary: Weather a big factor at Congressional

Remember the weather that conspired to turn venerable Congressional Country Club into a pitch-and-putt course during the 2011 U.S. Open, turning Rory McIlroy into a superstar in the process?

Well, Mother Nature has been far less charitable this week in the PGA Tour's return to Congressional for the AT&T National.

Dry conditions made the course fast, firm and difficult from the beginning of Thursday's opening round. Ridiculous, triple-digit temperatures had players nearly passing out on Friday. And a storm with straight-line winds as strong as a tornado felled more than 40 trees, significantly pushing back everyone's tee times on Saturday and leaving so many dangerous limbs hanging that the third round was played sans spectators.

In almost complete silence, tournament host Tiger Woods and the rest must have felt like they were playing a $5 dollar Nassau at their local club - albeit a very difficult local club.

The high scores over the first three rounds were in contrast to last year's major championship staged here, when McIlroy shot a U.S. Open-record 16-under par to win by eight strokes and touch off extremely premature talk of him being the next "next Tiger."

But it wasn't just McIlroy who had his way with Congressional. Twenty players shot under par in a tournament that strives to make even par a good score. Two weeks ago, in the U.S. Open contested at Olympic, the winning score was 1 over.

There was talk that the members were embarrassed and were out for retribution this week. Even if that was the case, no matter how well-heeled and connected the members may be, they can not simply dial up 100-degree temperatures or a brutal storm.

Neither can Woods, who missed the 2011 U.S. Open with an injury.

"Don't be mad at me," Woods told reporters. "I didn't play [last year]."

A year ago, a dry spell in the weeks leading up to the Open meant the rough wasn't as thick or tough as usual at what is generally the most difficult scoring event of the year, and also meant that relatively new greens couldn't be cut too low for fear of losing them. Tame rough and receptive, slowish greens meant McIlroy could shoot 65 on the first day and stay comfortably in the 60s all week.

His 16-under total was four better in relation to par than anyone had ever shot before at a U.S. Open. The only other time any player won with double-digits below par was in 2000 at Pebble Beach when Tiger Woods shot 12 under. That was hardly a referendum on course conditions, though. Pebble vexed everyone else as second place that week was 15 shots back at 3 over.

Not so last year, with more than one-quarter of the weekend field under par. Seven players were at 5 under or better, a total which would've won virtually every previous U.S. Open. Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ, spoke for most everyone when he said Congressional wasn't a "true" U.S. Open test a year ago.

"Obviously, the weather had a lot to do with it," said Mark Leishman, who earned his first PGA Tour win last week.

While former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk said Congressional doesn't have to "justify or validate" what a good course it is, clearly, no one wanted to see 16 under win as if this was the Bob Hope Classic or something. So when scores were up significantly over the first two rounds - the cut was 6 over this week compared to 4 over last week and the leading score at the midpoint was four shots higher than at the 2011 U.S. Open - no one was surprised.

"I think it's playing a lot like a U.S. Open," Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III told reporters. "Not quite what they wanted last year, but they got it this year."

They got it, and then some. Friday's conditions could only have been described as brutal, with a heat index of around 110 that left some players woozy and left Hunter Mahan as about the only player able to go low.

"Golf is a challenge in itself, and when the conditions and the weather comes into play, it's a whole 'nother factor," Mahan said. "It's very important to be mentally strong."

That was music to Woods' ears. The player who ushered in the era of the physically fit golfer, Woods relished two more rounds in the heat.

"Fitness, running all those miles, and lifting all those weights, it comes into play when you get days like this, and consecutive days like this," he said. "It's playing like an Open. It really is. It's quick, it's dry ... definitely not easy."

In other words, the exact opposite of last year, when it really was a U.S. Open. That theme continued Saturday.

Golf fans in the D.C. area and beyond who supported PGA events with no-name fields and "Who's he?" winners for decades don't care. They've got a final round today with a a strong leaderboard that includes the greatest golfer of his generation, and they will enjoy watching the drama unfold.

If they're allowed onto the course, that is.

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