That club, Congressional Country Club, in Bethesda, Md., was once the Shangri-La for Washington’s political power brokers, a place to meet “unconstrained by red tape,” as the club’s Web site says. And politicians, including the four United States presidents who are listed among the club’s founding members, took advantage of it.
But times have changed for Congressional, which is hosting the United States Open this week, and for golf itself. With the first round scheduled for Thursday, the scene there is nothing like it was in 1964, when the club hosted its first United States Open, and it has markedly changed since even 1997, when it hosted its second. That was the last time a major tournament was held there.
“Most members of Congress won’t tell you, ‘I’m going to the U.S. Open at Congressional this week,’ simply because these days they would just as soon not be associated with the game of golf,” said the longtime Washington lobbyist Dan Tate Sr., who is one of the area’s top golfers, according to a recent ranking of power brokers by Golf Digest. “Most of them are going to say they are not going, or they are not going to acknowledge that they are going. There’s something wrong there, and it’s a shame, but they have to be aware of appearances.”
The scandal involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his all-expenses-paid golf junkets for politicians like Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who had been the House majority leader, damaged the sport’s dinged reputation in Washington. Then, in 2007, new ethics rules barred lawmakers from accepting meals, travel and gifts from lobbyists or any organization employing them. That pinched the ability of members of Congress and businessmen, the two groups for which the Congressional Country Club was founded, to tee off together.
And now with two wars, a tight economy and a high national unemployment rate, the prevailing belief is that constituents do not want to see their representatives having fun at the golf course.
“Right now, some constituents think that members of Congress playing golf is a big deal and they don’t like it,” Tate Sr., who lobbies for the PGA Tour, said. “There is so much less talk about politicians going fishing or hunting, because that supposedly makes those members of Congress seem more normal. How ambushing and slaughtering another living creature makes you more normal, I have no idea. But it’s all about perception.”
Concerns with perception are not entirely new. President John F. Kennedy was so sensitive about his golf game going public that he forbade photographers from the course. Once he nearly shot a hole in one and was relieved that his ball stopped six inches short because the feat would have made news. In 2003 President George W. Bush said that he gave up golf out of sensitivity to families of fallen soldiers in the Iraq war.
This week politicians were vague about their plans for the Open, if they had any. One might have expected it to be a four-day golf festival for lawmakers when the course was selected as host in 2004.
A special viewing platform near the 16th hole was built for President Clinton in 1997 to watch the Open, but President Obama has not publicly expressed an interest in attending this year’s tournament, nor has he ever played Congressional. Speaker John A. Boehner, who will be in town this weekend, does not have the Open penciled in on his schedule, according to his spokesman Michael Steel.
Obama and Boehner’s own golf competition has trumped the Open, with their first meeting on the links scheduled for Saturday at an undisclosed location. How that outing will play with voters is still unclear.
Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat from Kentucky, worked as a staffer in Congress in the 1970s, and said he “was invited out all the time to go to Congressional,” and that lobbyists would pay. But those days are long gone, he said. Now, the closest he is likely to come to Congressional’s links may be this weekend, if he can find time to attend the Open.
Representative Joe Baca, a California Democrat who heads the Congressional Golf Caucus, a bipartisan group that promotes the sport, also said he would probably not have time to fit in a trip to the Open. Baca said he did not belong to Congressional or any other club in Washington, choosing more often to play on public courses so “you don’t become a part of the snots that belong to the country club areas. You’re amongst the people.”
The clientele at Congressional is undoubtedly exclusive. The initiation fees, which are not publicly disclosed, are more than $100,000, with a reported waiting list of more than seven years.
Tony Russo, a lobbyist at T-Mobile and a former staffer for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., is ranked as Washington’s best golfer and says the hefty initiation fee is worth it because of the club’s amenities, which include two championship golf courses, pools, a bowling alley and junior golf programs. He has been a member for four years. After all, it is not as expensive as some clubs in Arizona, which have initiation fees of $200,000 or $300,000, he said.
This week, though, the biggest perk of being a member of Congressional might be that each member has the option to buy two tickets to the Open each day. But when he was asked if people had been clamoring to be his plus-one for the Open, Russo said no.
Nowadays , like tickets to the Open this year, club membership is arguably less coveted than it was. There are about 1,100 active resident members, and politicians make up less of the membership than they used to, said Ben Brundred, a former president of the club.
“When I was younger, a typical golf foursome might include members of Congress and a doctor,” he said. “Now it’s more doctors and lawyers.”
In the past, Brundred said, members of Congress were given discounted membership rates, so they could afford to join. But that ended in the 1970s, he said.
Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, said people back home often asked him about Congressional, which, because of its name, they assume is for members of Congress.
“To many of my golf constituents’ dismay, I don’t have a membership,” said Udall, who is considered the top golfer in Congress. “I haven’t played there. I can’t get them in there.”
But he may go this weekend.
“I think I can find a way to go one of the days,” he said. “But I want to be clear. I’d be paying for those tickets.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research from St. Petersburg, Fla.