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The PGA Tour in Washington, or Not

Posted on Wednesday 26 April 2006

My 20+ years of attendance and volunteering at the PGA Tour stop in Washington may be coming to an end, but not because I’m going to quit. It looks to me as though this summer’s Booz Allen Classic will be the last time the men’s professional tour comes to town, maybe until the US Open returns to Congressional in 2011. I think the PGA Tour wants out of their own venue, the TPC at Avenel, so badly that it is contriving ways to justify leaving.

After years in North Carolina the tournament, then known as the Kemper Open, moved to the area in 1980. Congressional hosted for seven years until the tournament moved to the brand-new TPC at Avenel for the 1987 event. The new course was a loser from the very beginning, at least in the opinions of the touring pros. Greg Norman famously said they should ‘blow up’ the ninth green. (The tour later did exactly that, albeit with bulldozers and bobcats rather than dynamite.) The immaturity of the course, coupled with a design which is quirky at best, did nothing to attract top players to town. Even with a tweak here and there the course has an odd ‘Ground Hog Day’ quality about it: numbers 7 and 8 are nearly identical par 4s, and 12 and 13 share the same design element, a fairway split by a creek. From a player’s perspective it’s OK to play once, but there’s not much there to draw you back, save for two, or maybe three holes. The short par 5 sixth is a terrific risk-reward hole which tempts even shorter-than-Tiger players to go for the green in two, and fourteen is an outstanding drivable par 4. Some folks find the par 3 ninth interesting, although the novelty of the vertical drop from tee to green wore off quickly for me, both as a player and a spectator. The layout is hilly, and can be difficult to walk, especially in the heat and humidity of June in Washington. Pointing out the ryegrass fairways, poa annua greens and a routing which sacrifices shot values for homesites seems like piling on.

The PGA Tour has said several times during the past couple of years that it was going to renovate the course; local news reports put the budget in the staggering range of $10-20 million. The conventional wisdom was that as soon as a new sponsor could be found (after Kemper left five years ago) the bulldozers would fire up. In fact, when Booz Allen signed on before the 2004 event the reports were that the event would be held at Congressional in 2005 precisely because Avenel would be undergoing its makeover. But the bulldozers never arrived.

Course aside, the PGA Tour has acted as if they’ve taken the Avenel event for granted. They naturally say that’s not true, but the fact is that the tournament has bounced around the schedule from Memorial Day weekend to the week after the US Open for much of the past decade. And in 2007 the event is supposed to move to September or October as part of the “Fall Series”; that part of the schedule is mainly aimed at those players who are trying to make enough money to keep their Tour card for the following year. That’s not to say that they’re untalented or uninteresting players, but not even the Tour couldn’t keep a straight face while arguing that they will be the draw a Tiger or Phil would be. For that matter, they’re probably not the draw that Rory Sabbatini is (who’s in the top 20 in the money list at the moment.)

The move to the fall is a failure out of the box: the course condition will be suspect because it may not recover from the summer weather’s toll, spectators will not be attracted to a field comprising third-tier and below players, the event will have to compete with Redskins games for fans’ attention, and there will no broadcast TV coverage; it’ll be only on The Golf Channel. And did I mention that we get hurricanes in September and October?

Given the venue, the spot on the schedule, and the cost, it’s no wonder that Booz Allen decided not to renew its sponsorship deal. I’ll be amazed if any company steps up to the plate, although the Tour has plenty of time to announce it should they find a willing sponsor. After all, they signed FBR as a one-year sponsor just months before the event, right after Kemper quit.

So why is all this going on? I think the Tour wants out of Avenel badly. They can’t justify a hugely expensive renovation for a middling event, and certainly can’t justify it based on the membership at the TPC club. Without having a significantly better course they have little chance of attracting a better field. And without a better field they won’t be able to attract a significant sponsor. By making things difficult for the event to prosper they can take it off the schedule, citing diminished fan interest and lack of a title sponsor. Neat; they get out of Avenel and don’t lose face.

But I don’t think the PGA Tour wants to abandon Washington permanently. The area’s demographics are too good and fans are both abundant and evident. Attendance at Avenel, even with few top players in the field, is usually around 25-30K per day in spite of difficult parking logistics. We also turn out in droves for the Presidents Cup when it’s held at RTJ and enthusiastically support the Senior, er, Champions Tour and LPGA Tour at their Baltimore stops.

So what is their plan? How can they decamp from Avenel but not abandon Washington? I’ll tell you in a couple of days.

6 Comments for 'The PGA Tour in Washington, or Not'

    May 18, 2006 | 2:49 pm

    Very well written. As an Avenel member, I have to say you hit the nail right on the head. The TOUR will not put that much money into a below average TOUR event but hopefully a new club house will be forthcoming. It’s a challenging, enjoyable track but some changes for the average golfer would be nice.

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