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A year later, Congressional gets a US Open course

Jim Furyk must feel as if he's going from one U.S. Open to another one.

During a practice round at Congressional for the AT&T National, he stood on the first tee and planned to hit driver over the right edge of the bunker, bouncing it up the fairway toward the green, just like he has the other three times he played it as a PGA Tour event.

Only there was one problem.

The bunker no longer hugged the left side. The fairway was so narrow that the bunker was 10 yards into the rough.

"I went, 'Oh, wow.' Looked at my caddie and said, 'The cut lines are still the same as they were at the Open last year,'" Furyk said.

On the par-3 second hole, the wind was so strong into him that he hit a 3-wood onto the front of the green. A year ago at the U.S. Open, the greens were so soft from heavy rain that it would have taken a few hops and rolled to a stop.

"It ended up on the back of the green," Furyk said. "And it was into the breeze. I said, 'OK, game on.' Now I realize what I have to get ready for this week."

Congressional looks more like a U.S. Open course than the U.S. Open did last year.

The fairways are tight. The rough is thick and ankle-deep in spots, and this was after they cut it down a few weeks ago. The greens are firm and bouncy. It has all the trappings of a U.S. Open, and Congressional has hosted three of them.

But this is just the AT&T National.

"I'm sure we'll see U.S. Open-type conditions, probably a lot firmer and faster than they were here when we played the U.S. Open," Davis Love III said. "I think it's going to play tough."

The USGA was at the mercy of the weather last year — difficult conditions during the growing season, overnight rain during the championship that didn't allow the course to dry out. The result was a record score by Rory McIlroy, who finished on 16-under 268 for an eight-shot win.

McIlroy isn't back this year because he loves home just a little more than he loves Congressional. The Irish Open is this week at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, a revered course that has produced the first four-day sellout in European Tour history.

Tiger Woods is back, even though he wasn't at Congressional last year.

Woods wound up missing the middle two majors in 2011 to fully recover from injuries to his left leg, so all he could do was watch from home as McIlroy shattered his U.S. Open scoring records. Woods previously was the only player to finish a U.S. Open in double figures under par (12 under), and he tied the Open scoring record at 272.

McIlroy beat both those marks by four.

In some respects, Woods can consider himself the defending champion. The last time the AT&T National was played at Congressional was in 2009, when he closed with a 67 to finish on 13-under 267 for a one-shot win.

But this isn't the same course.

It was played as a par 70 in 2009, with the sixth hole a long par 4. Now, the course is playing the same length as the U.S. Open, a par 71 at 7,569 yards, using some of the new tees the USGA had built for its premier championship.

That includes the 466-yard third hole, the 470-yard fourth hole, and a 523-yard hole on the 18th.

"I like it quick because it certainly puts a premium on shaping shots, and more than anything, keeping the ball under the hole," Woods said. "We've seen what this place can do when it gets soft, and what the guys can shoot."

Whether it stays fast when the AT&T National gets under way on Thursday remains to be seen. No rain was in the forecast, but the temperatures began climbing into the 90s on Wednesday, and with hot weather, officials might have to keep more water on the greens to keep the grass alive.

Woods was asked what he would like to see as the winning score, and he cut off the question when a reporter said, 'Would you like it to be below ..."

"Below 16 under?" he said, smiling in reference to McIlroy's record score.

"As long as I'm that person," Woods added, "yes."

Woods is following his script from 2009, when he started the year by winning at Bay Hill and Memorial, hosted by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He also won the AT&T National that year (he was the official host), though he never won a major.

He is coming off a U.S. Open at Olympic Club by taking a share of the 36-hole lead, only to stumble badly on the weekend and tie for 21st.

"I've won major championships, and I haven't done it since '08," Woods said. "We all go through periods where that doesn't happen. Some periods are entire careers. But I think I understand how to win major championships. The key is just giving yourself chances."

Nick Watney is the proper defending champion, winning last year at Aronimink, where the tournament went for two years because of the U.S. Open. The field also includes Hunter Mahan, a runner-up to Woods in 2009, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott.

Getting most of the attention in the days leading up to the tournament was the golf course, which should present the kind of test the U.S. Open wanted last year.

"It's set up more like a major," said Marc Leishman, coming off a win last week at Hartford. "Obviously, the weather had a lot to do with it last year. It's definitely going to be tougher. I don't think 20 under is going to be winning, or 15 under, or whatever on the U.S. Open last year. I don't think that's going to happen again."