Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., is one of those pristine plots of land reserved for well-heeled members and their privileged guests. Presidents, CEOs and A-list actors have all walked the 400 acres just minutes from Washington.
This week, Congressional hosts the 111th U.S. Open. Its immaculate fairways and lightning fast greens will test the best golfers in the world. It is the place to be for golf's elite.
St. Petersburg's Caesar Civitella will have a different perspective. He remembers a time when nobody wanted to go to Congressional.
In 1943, with World War II raging, the course was a training ground for special members of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, a predecessor to the CIA.
Congressional Country Club was no paradise.
"We could only call it Area F,'' said Civitella, 87. "If anybody asked us where we were training, we would say 'Area F.' Everything was very secretive back then.''
'We did some damage'
Back then, Civitella was a 20-year-old airborne engineer selected to be in special operations because of his training and his ability to speak Italian. He was sent to jump school before joining the OSS, which only happened because of a lapse in judgment.
While with the Army's Amphibious Engineers in Cape Cod, Mass., Civitella was a crew member on the commanding officer's yacht. He and his fellow crew members decided one Sunday to take the yacht out for an unauthorized sail. The crew faced court martial or transfer after that stunt. Civitella chose the latter and went to Camp MacKall in North Carolina to learn how to parachute.
"Hey, we were teenagers,'' Civitella said. "Or at least we acted like teenagers.''
A week into his Camp MacKall stay he was screened for Italian fluency and asked to join the OSS. That would mean training at Congressional Country Club. It was October 1943.
"I was from a West Philadelphia Italian neighborhood,'' Civitella said. "To me, this was going uptown.''
But it was not country club living. Civitella stayed in a tent on the tennis courts with five other soldiers and a pot belly stove in the middle. They were rarely in the tent because their days and nights were spent training. And it wasn't normal training.
The goal was to train spies and commandos who could drop behind enemy lines and take out opposing forces. They practiced ambushes, hand-to-hand combat, general mayhem.
"The training was not the regular military stuff,'' Civitella said. "It was guerilla warfare, unconventional warfare. Blowing up rail lines and so forth.
"We had to get through their obstacle course one night. They had booby traps all over the course. So we did it. When you made it to the end you were at Glen Echo Park. It was mostly crawling on your belly.''
That's what Civitella will think of when he turns on the U.S. Open this week — crawling on his belly trying to avoid traps in the grass and the bullets officers were firing above his head.
"It'll bring back a hell of a lot of memories,'' Civitella said. "Living in the tent, ambushes, running. We did some damage to the club, but they got paid for it.''
'Malice in Wonderland'
Congressional Country Club was built in 1921 and opened in 1924. It was a place to be seen for the country's elite. But after the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1932, membership waned. There were 680 members in 1931, but by 1943 it dwindled to 216.
William Donovan, a decorated World War I officer, proposed the creation of an American intelligence service. In 1942 the OSS was created, and the group needed space to train.
With Congressional struggling to pay the bills, Donovan offered to lease the course for $4,000 per month and promised to repair any damages. The Congressional board jumped at the offer.
For the next two-plus years, Congressional looked nothing like a golf course. It was dug up, blown up and beat up. One trainee famously called it "Malice in Wonderland.''
By early 1946, OSS training ended. The course was returned to the 156 loyal members who hung on, dues free, through the war. The government spent $200,000 cleaning up its mess. The course was playable by May 1946.
Since World War II, Congressional has hosted two U.S. Opens, 1964 and '97. It also hosted the 1976 PGA Championship.
After his training at the course, Civitella went to North Africa for more training and then into southern France and Italy. When the war ended, Civitella had a short stint at the University of Pennsylvania, then reenlisted in 1947 and ended up in the 82nd Airborne.
He went into officer training and started working at Fort Bragg, N.C. In 1964 he went to work for the CIA and in 1981 was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
He retired in 1983 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he has been ever since.
Civitella says he is not a golfer. He has tried the game a few times, but his slice got the best of him.
He has returned to Congressional several times for reunions with OSS members. He hasn't gone back in more than two years, mostly because it's not really his kind of place.
"They make you wear a suit and tie and jacket when you come back,'' Civitella said. "Isn't that something? It's too stuffy."