BETHESDA — No round of professional golf can be played on the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club without, it seems, comparing it to the events of two years ago, to the 111th U.S. Open in which Rory McIlroy appeared to make a mockery of the place. So here came Thursday, the first round of the AT&T National, just two weeks removed from the most recent U.S. Open, held at Merion Golf Club.
The difference between a major and a regular PGA Tour event can be found in the length of the rough, the speed of the greens, the distance from tee to flag, the tension in the players' necks. Congressional was questioned and criticized two years ago after a series of meteorological misfortunes left it defenseless, but it since has shown that it might make a regular old PGA Tour stop more majorlike than almost any other course all year.
"It played just like it," Lucas Glover, a former U.S. Open champ himself, said Thursday. "Actually played harder."
The numbers don't quite bear that out, but it's close. The first-round leader is Roberto Castro, a 28-year-old engineer from Georgia Tech who doesn't have a top-10 finish this year yet came up with a 5-under-par 66 on Thursday afternoon. His round was superb: a bogey after a tee shot into a creek on his second hole, the diabolical 11th, followed by six birdies the rest of the way, and it put Castro two shots clear of Billy Horschel, Bud Cauley and Graham DeLaet, each with 68.
"I like where it's just right in front of you, and you have to go just stripe a driver," Castro said. "If not, you know what you're going to get. There's not many good breaks or bad breaks to be had out there. If you drive it in the rough, you drove it in the rough."
So get out the results from the 2011 Open, and begin the comparisons. McIlroy, who set Open records by completing four rounds in 16-under 268, opened that tournament with a 65. Next up: Charl Schwartzel and Y.E. Yang, each with 68. Pretty similar to Thursday's events.
"It feels like you could hold the U.S. Open here this week if they wanted to," said Brandt Snedeker, one of seven players to shoot 69. "It's tough. It's just as tough as Merion is. ... It'll be interesting to see what the winning score is Sunday."
The debate, then, follows. Tiger Woods, the event's host who is sitting out this week because of a strained left elbow, said Wednesday he wants this tournament to be "one of the more difficult PGA Tour events."
"Allow these guys, if they play well and shoot an under-par score, they're going to move up," Woods said. "I would like to see, if you shoot 2-, 3-under-par each and every day, you should be in the lead of the tournament."
That would yield a winning score like last year, when Woods finished 8-under for his second victory in the event. And that's just fine with plenty of folks in the field.
"The tougher the golf course, the better I like it," said Horschel, who was tied for the lead after 36 holes at Merion. "I don't like easy ones. I think you should be penalized if you hit a bad shot."
But others feel there should be limits to that idea, particularly when it's not a major championship. Glover, for instance, came to the par-5 ninth — his final hole — at even par. The hole, though, covers 636 yards from the back tee, and when Glover hit his drive six feet into the rough, he was dead. He hacked out a 6-iron, which he normally hits 190 yards, but couldn't cover a 140-yard carry to reach the corner of the fairway, so found himself with a wedge out of the rough, then an 8-iron left into the green. He made bogey, and walked off disgruntled.
"I'm fine with hard golf courses," Glover said after his 72. "But make it fun. Make it fun for us; make it fun for the fans.
That's what we're here for. We're here to entertain these people that pay a lot of money to come watch us play golf — not try to make par. ... We're supposed to show these people how good we are, not how we can chip out of the rough."
Castro did that well, making a couple of crucial, scrambling par saves to put himself in this position — most notably at the par-4 eighth, where he hit his approach off a tree and to the right of some restrooms, yet still pitched up to the green and made an eight-foot putt. He now must do what he couldn't in May, when he led the Players Championship after an opening 63 but followed with 78 at quirky TPC Sawgrass.
"That place," Castro said, "is a trip."
This place is not. It is a classic old golf course that isn't particularly tricky but is plenty treacherous. And what awaits over the next three days could be a reasonable impersonation of an Open, regardless of how that makes any of the players feel.