Congressional playing like fifth major

BETHESDA, Md. -- After a surprising tie for second at the maddeningly difficult Olympic Club in San Francisco, Michael Thompson thought he wouldn't have to face a U.S. Open setup for at least another year. But after an opening-round 4-over-par 75 in the first round of the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club, the Alabama grad said he feels like he's right back into the thick of his country's national open.

"My score today wasn't all that bad considering the conditions," the 27-year-old Thompson said. "It's playing like a U.S. Open. I think these are the conditions that the USGA wanted last year."

With temperatures nearing 90 degrees on Thursday morning, the 7,569-yard, par-71 layout played fast and firm. In 2011, rain-softened conditions made the Rees Jones redesign very vulnerable, leading to Rory McIlroy's record-setting 16-under-par total. Even par might be a good score here this week.

Thompson said the best birdie chances are on the front nine, particularly at holes 1, 5, 6 and 8. But he called the inward half a beast, noting that with the tees all the way back even many of the longer players will be hitting 5- or 6-irons into all the par-4s. On these holes, Thompson said, he's just looking for pars.

On the back nine, the par-5 16th will offer players some reprieve. On Thursday morning, Brandt Jobe had an eagle there on his way to a 1-under 70. Last year, Jobe finished in a tie for 23rd at Congressional.

"The course is playing tough," Jobe said. "It's playing harder than what it was in the U.S. Open. The rough is a little thicker. The greens are much firmer and quicker. So that combination, even standing out there with a wedge in your hands, you're kind of playing some defense, which is the way a hard golf course is supposed to play.

"If you gave me 5 under at the end of the week, I would take it. If they keep setting the golf course up like they did today and we don't get rain, it's a U.S. Open."

On the Thursday morning of his first round at last year's U.S. Open, Jobe said it was raining while he was hitting balls on the Congressional practice range. But when he stepped on the 10th tee, the rain stopped.

"Then all of sudden," said the 46-year-old UCLA grad, "the greens weren't thick and dense. They were thin and then they got a little more dirt than grass. So the texture now on the greens is where they want them to be."

On this Thursday, Jobe caught a lie in the rough that allowed him to advance the ball only about 80 yards.

"The first 8 yards of the rough is this really dense fescue," Jobe said. "Then after that it's bluegrass, where it's better. So missing the fairway big is a lot better than missing it a little bit."

When Thompson and Jobe tee off Friday afternoon, they will likely encounter temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Couple the extreme weather with the difficult conditions, and the AT&T National could end up being one of the year's most difficult tests of physical and mental endurance for the best players in the world.

"The heat is going to affect a lot of players," Thompson said. "It's hot, especially when you're wearing these pants. I've been living in the South long enough to where I should be used to it, but it does sap your energy.

"You definitely have to drink a lot of water. I probably drink a bottle of water every two holes."

It's a year too late, but Congressional finally can defend itself against the best players in the world. Somewhere the folks at the USGA are thinking what could have been had Mother Nature not intervened with its plans.