BETHESDA -- It was raining, sometimes easy and sometimes hard, and no one could blame Lee Trevino if his preparations for the U.S. Senior Open beginning tomorrow at Congressional Country Club included sticking close to the clubhouse. Maybe even in an old air raid shelter.
Twenty years ago to the day, Lee and fellow PGA tourists Bobby Nichols and Jerry Heard were competing in the Western Open outside Chicago. The boom of thunder was followed by the crack of lightning and Trevino, huddled underneath an umbrella with Heard, screamed, "I'm hit."
Trevino's caddie said, "At first I thought he was kidding, laying there. But then he said he felt as if he had died."
Back to the present day at Congressional, Trevino already had engaged in a practice round and he noted, "the course is playing longer than we're used to playing. But it's about time we started hitting 2-irons and 3-irons into the greens."
The pros, of course, glory in shooting sub-par rounds and seeing a leader board with red numbers in double figures. But not at a championship.
Trevino said several of the PGA Senior stops have been on long courses but that they were set up to play short. And he, for one, isn't crazy about the practice. "I may shoot a million, but I like to see the golf course stretched out."
Consistent rain for the last week and with a forecast for showers and thunderstorms for the next several days has the course in lush and very soft condition, usually a boon to golfers. They like nothing better than to hold the club down at the end and swing from their back pockets while attempting to drop their approach shots right on top of the flag.
With the Blue Course measuring out just 50 yards shy of 7,000 yards, however, the over-50 set won't have lofted clubs (8s, 9s and wedges) in their hands as they attempt to reach the putting surfaces in regulation. What doesn't help when one is trying to be as long off the tee as can be in order to cut down the length of the second shot is the fact the rough is the USGA-prescribed four inches long . . . and that's before it had a couple more inches of water dropped on it.
Congressional head pro Kent Cayce said, "Because of the length of the course and the size of the greens [some are measured in acres], it takes an inordinate amount of patience to play well here. You're going to make bogeys and par is not a bad score. There are not a whole lot of birdie opportunities."
While a pro's touting his course is to be expected, the par-72 layout never has yielded gaudy scores to competitors. When Ken Venturi won the U.S. Open here in 1964, for instance, he was the only man in the field under par with his 278 (2-under). Arnold Palmer was 6-over (286), Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus 15-over.
"I think this is the type course where 4-under could lead the tournament all four days," Cayce continued. "Someone could shoot a 68 the first day and each day thereafter I don't think you'd see much ground gained."
A big early lead, built up over the first three days by Simon Hobday, was the way last year's tourney went at Pinehurst, N.C. The South African went 66-67-66 and was 17-under-par, unheard of in a USGA title event, when, in Hobday's words, "Embarrassment began to set in."
On national television and with several holes to play, he flashed the choke sign. "What else could I do? Everyone could see what was happening."
He did make it in to a 75, though, and to show his appreciation, he stretched out on the 18th and gave the ground a big smooch after his last putt dropped. "I was so relieved," he said. "It was awful, playing like that, particularly after I had played so well the first three days."
Simon competed in the Open at Shinnecock Hills two weeks ago, but failed to make the cut. One shot back of Hobday in 1994 were Jim Albus and Graham Marsh. The latter won a Senior stop back at the beginning of the month and Albus scored in mid-March. Recent tourney winners include Bob Murphy, last Sunday, Tom Wargo, two weeks ago in Dallas, Jim Dent and Dave Stockton.
Of course, they're all here as are Ray Floyd, Tom Weiskopf, Nicklaus, Trevino and the newest "kid" on the block, Hale Irwin, who has finished fourth and second in his first two Seniors events.
* Congressional dates back to 1921, when 343 acres of land just 15 miles removed from the capital didn't carry a price tag in the trillions. It wasn't until 1957 that the back nine of the second (Blue) course was completed and taking part in the grand opening were a couple of avid golfers from downtown, President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.
Here's Ike's card over the then par-71 layout: 435 564 554 -41 654 535 654 -43 --84.
16TH SENIOR OPEN
Where: Congressional Country Club, Bethesda
When: Tomorrow through Sunday; in case of tie, an 18-hole playoff will be held Monday.
Who: 156 of the world's best 50-and-over golfers.
Tickets: Individual tickets are $18 for practice rounds and $30 for regular rounds. Season and grounds, $110; clubhouse and grounds, $175; daily ticket book, $225. All packages include parking; season and daily also include official program. For more information, call (301) 469-2305.