It boasts the largest clubhouse in the United States and certainly one of the most iconic in the world, recognizable from any television or camera angle. The giant white centerpiece at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, was designed in 1924 by famed architect Philip Jullien and includes a bowling alley, spas, ballrooms, more restaurant options than you could ever want, indoor racquet courts, pools, gyms, locker rooms and 21 guest rooms in case you need to stay the night. Wander around in the clubhouse unattended and you could be lost for hours.
So it might surprise some people to know that Congressional just completed a new building on the property, a six-bay, seven-station indoor/outdoor learning center at the back of the driving range that sets the standard for state-of-the-art instruction.
Wait, Congressional? That’s not exactly the club that pops front of mind when you talk about technology and innovation. The club just spent a small fortune completely reimagining its Blue Course, restoring the property to the treeless pastureland and rolling terrain that made it the most popular new country club in the Washington, D.C. area during the Herbert Hoover administration. Members there love their tradition. That is the place going all bells-and-whistles now?
Indeed it is. As director of sports, Jason Epstein, said, “The club is heavily invested in the traditions of the game of golf. But everything we have done to the clubhouse and to the golf course, particularly the agronomics of the golf course, have been about using technology to improve the game and the experience.
“So you have to ask yourself, how does that translate into learning the game today? How do we give the student more feedback and improve coaching and make entry points into the game easier and more convenient?
“For us, (the new facility) was a natural. Throw in the fact that the weather in this area can be pretty extreme, both heat and cold, and it made sense to create a controlled environment that took advantage of all the latest technology but also created a really cool learning experience for members.”
How do you enhance the learning environment but also make it experiential?
The answer is, you go all out with everything, which is exactly what Congressional did. Rather than build a mini-me version of the clubhouse, the learning center looks like horse stables on the far end of the range, a solid 400 yards from the normal warm-up area and more than a quarter of a mile from the club’s circular driveway and porte-cochère. That distance gives those who take advantage of the facility a sense of separation from the non-golf elements of the club, while still connecting members to the best experience in the area.
Each station has TrackMan and also Swing Catalyst, the synchronized video system and software that captures swings from all angles, and the Zen Putting stage with hydraulic lifts to change angles.
“We also can throw a mat on those and put them in the bays so you can practice hitting off uneven lies,” Epstein said.
There’s a 1,000-square-foot putting green that rolls at about an 11 on the Stimpmeter, along with balance plates and force plates to measure weight and force distribution during swings. Then there is the Puttview system, which uses a series of seemingly magic lasers to map out lines, breaks, arcs and targets on the putting green. Put it all together and the new facility at Congressional is as high-tech as any learning center you will find.
“Plus we have a couple of simulators so that the members can use them, not just for game improvement, but also for some of those entertainment experiences you see other places,” Epstein said. “The whole idea is to enhance the club experience so that, even in a learning environment, the club feels like an extension of home.
“A lot of our members just love the club. They love being members at Congressional. But the ones that love golf, they now have a home to do it. And it’s really exciting.”
A lot of outsiders think of Congressional as an exclusive place, but it is really a family club. When you look at all the family members who can use the facilities, the total number of people with charging privileges is close to 10,000. Even with 36 holes, that’s a lot of people. Throw in the weather, and the get-away feel of the learning center makes a lot of sense.
“From about November 15 to March 15 or maybe as late as April 1 we’re inside (because of weather),” Epstein said. “But also if you come in July or August it feels like it’s 115, so we’re back indoors again. This facility allows you to enjoy golf and work on your game in comfort. And given the technology, we expect it to be busy year-round.”
For those who don’t think of Congressional as a cutting-edge club, Epstein had a message about balance. “You respect your traditions. You remain traditional, but you also adapt with modern technology to make your member experiences better and to improve the game,” he said.
“Congressional is still a hundred-year-old club with all the history and traditions that go with that. But we also use the modern technologies to make the golf course feel like it was built in the 1920s.
“The same with this (new learning center) building. You are using the modern technologies and the way people are learning today to integrate and improve your teaching.
“We want to challenge some of the conventional thinking of the past. Having technology has made teachers better. Some of those ball-flight laws that you learned about 30 years ago, technology has shown that there is a little bit of a different take on those.
“Many of these tools (we are implementing) are now standard in our industry. If you’re not using them, you’re at a disadvantage.”
One or two of them might be standard at various places, but nowhere else can you find all of them together.
“We couldn’t be more excited about it,” Epstein said. “The staff and the members: Everyone top to bottom is excited about this facility. We don’t think there’s anything like it in the country.”
The lesson here is simple: Tradition remains important, especially at the most iconic clubs in America. But the game is evolving as technology improves. Everyone has to adapt.