A couple of years ago, Washingtonian magazine listed “26 Reasons to Love Washington.” Since this piece is about golf, we’ll add one more to make it 27.
And that reason is Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Montgomery County and Maryland proudly claim the club and course as theirs, but golf fans across the region have enjoyed top-notch spectating at this storied venue. Established in 1924, its members have included seven Presidents. None other than Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones have put their magic fingers on its layout. The famed Blue Course hosted the Kemper Open seven times, Tiger Woods’s AT&T National three so far, the PGA in 1976, and this June will mark the third time the Men’s U.S. Open will be played on its soft hills and tree-lined fairways.
As great as all that is, there is a caveat this time around. Protected by the Potomac River to the south, and with vehicle restrictions from the other directions, the course will become a fortress. The only way in and out for most patrons will be on a shuttle bus from one of the satellite parking lots.
Of course, this is standard procedure for golf tournaments. For some reason, however, USGA officials have adopted a transportation plan that has some serious flaws. If not corrected, they could mar the overall experience for fans.
To understand the problem, let’s go back to the 1997 Open, the last time the Men’s Championship was decided here. The better half and I went to see the first round on Thursday. We drove from our home in Alexandria to the satellite parking lot at the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Annandale. We then quickly hopped on the shuttle. Smart, I remember thinking. It all went well. A fleet of shuttle buses sure beats all of us individually driving our own vehicles on the Beltway. And what a perfect location, serving Northern Virginia where a good chunk of the galleries will come from.
Fast forward to a few days ago. I had been thinking about the Open and all the excitement the four rounds of play will bring to the national capital region. All the greats of the game, including the international stars will be here, playing for what is arguably the most coveted title in all of golf.
Wanting to see the transportation options, I visited the official website. Clicking on the Spectator Guide, I found the map for the satellite parking lots. Looking at their location, both in Gaithersburg, I was reminded of a line in the movie “Titanic.”
“This is bad.”
One never wants to over-react, so I gave myself some time to think about the situation. There is a Metro option (set off at the Grosvenor-Strathmore station), but it also involves a 20-minute shuttle ride, and unlike the shuttle at the free satellite parking, there’s a charge of $8. Plus you have to make a reservation in advance, with the warning that there are limited number of shuttle passes available. (Greater Greater Washington blog has a good post on this, questioning why driving is subsidized, but Metro is not.)
The Metro option is the best one, but let’s face it. This prestigious golf tournament is not exactly the Solar Decathlon. True, gas has spiked to over $4 a gallon, but the economy is good here and people will drive.
I took another look at the map. Not only is there no Annandale or Tyson’s Corner lot, the two they have chosen, Montgomery County North and Crown Farm North, are in Gaithersburg, which is about ten miles north of the golf course.
If you live in the DC area, you know the trouble this scenario poses for getting to those two lots. If you’re not familiar with our roads, let me give you a plausible scenario for the drive.
If you’re coming down I-70 from points north, you’re much better off. You will encounter some traffic, but you are going to avoid most of it.
If you coming from points south or east, which the vast majority will, you will likely be taking the Beltway. If you are doing so on either Saturday or Sunday, the traffic should not be too bad. But for Thursday and Friday, and the practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, you will have to deal with Washington’s notorious rush hour traffic.
As I said earlier, for the 1997 Open, they had a satellite parking lot not only at the NOVA campus in Annandale, but also one at Tyson’s Corner. But you won’t be stopping at either of those. Where you will be stopping, or slowing down to a crawl, is the back up that starts on the Inner Loop of the Beltway (north bound towards Tyson Corner) near Braddock Road. When you reach this point, take a deep breath. You’ve still got about 25 miles to the parking lot in Maryland. Estimated time in traffic – one hour and ten minutes.
While you are enduring this long journey, you’re going to encounter two disheartening moments. Once you’re past the American Legion Bridge, which crosses over the Potomac, you will pass by River Road. Dream, dream, if you only had a little angel who could drop you off at the course, or if you know someone who lives in the vicinity.
Pressing on, you are now arriving at the I-270/Beltway split. (Stay in the left two lanes). One mile ahead is Democracy Boulevard, and time for another big sigh. For some of the past tournaments, officials arranged satellite parking there at the Marriott HQ parking lot on Fernwood Road. Worked well because that location is only about three miles from the course. But no such luck this time, and oh, by the way, it’s another eight miles to the parking lots.
Ok, you passed the endurance test, finally reaching the Crown Farm North Lot in Gaithersburg. The stress of driving on the traffic-choked Beltway and 270 Spur is over, but now you have to deal with another psychological blow. The course is on River Road, so you’re backtracking all those miles. Yes, I agree, we took Panama away from General Noriega in less time.
Given that prior golf tournaments at TPC Avenel and Congressional had those closer parking lots, I was very puzzled by the USGA’s transportation plan. I called and talked to one of their management officials yesterday. The planners, he said, did consider the Annandale and Tyson’s Corner parking lot options, but they were concerned the buses would get caught up in the back ups on that portion of the Beltway.
That’s a valid concern, but if all those patrons drive, they will encounter the same delays, and the Beltway traffic will be all that much worse off.
The official also said that patrons with a ticket have an additional option of parking at Dulles. That’s fine if you live in that part of Northern Virginia. From our house here in Alexandria, however, Dulles is about a 45-minute drive, and heads away from the golf course. And there’s still the long bus drive to the course.
In his column at the Washington Post on Tuesday, Thomas Boswell wrote about the U.S. Open coming here. He praised the tournament, saying,
In my lifetime, my favorite big-time sports experience in Washington has been the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club.
He also addresses the problem of traffic and getting to the course. He quotes USGA Executive Director Mike Davis as saying,
“You wonder, Jeez, is this traffic and parking going to work? And we’re still not sure here in D.C.”
In another piece, Davis said,
“We’re crossing our fingers on traffic and parking.”
The U.S. Open is always a great experience. The pros display their many talents, including hitting mighty long drives. Unfortunately, it appears that duffers like you and I will have to take a long drive to get to the tournament. What a shame.