The only reason the Wells Fargo Championship is here this week is that its regular venue, the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, hosts the Presidents Cup in the fall and the tour – which likes to sell people on the idea that the Cup of presidents is kind of important – didn’t want two events there in the same year.
This field has come a long way – in the wrong direction – over the past 42 years.
When Deane Beman was the tour commissioner, he had a strong desire for an annual event to take place in this area. There were two reasons: Beman believed the tour should have a presence in the nation’s capital, and he grew up in the area, graduating from the University of Maryland before winning four times on tour.
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Beman was the main reason the tour came to Maryland in 1980, when the Kemper Open was moved from Charlotte to the Congressional Country Club.
The fields were strong, attendance was excellent and all was well. In fact, five of the first six winners were great champions, including Greg Norman, winner in 1984 and 1986.
But then Beman and the tour jumped the shark. Beman’s dream of building a golf course near where he grew up, as part of the Tournament Players Network, came true when the TPC Avenel opened in 1986. A year later, the Kemper Open moved to Avenel, a move that turned out to be penny-wise and pound-folish.
Since the tour owned Avenel, there was no rent. But the golf course was flawed and not ready for a PGA Tour event. The attitude of the players towards Avenel was best summed up by Davis Love III. “Avenel isn’t a bad golf course,” he said, “unless you have to drive past Congress to get here.”
The fields got worse and worse, although attendance remained great. Norman stopped coming after saying Avenel’s ninth hole “should be blasted”.
When Chicago-based Kemper dropped out of the event after the 2002 tournament, two local companies stepped in to keep it alive: Friedman, Billings, Ramsey for a year, followed by Booz Allen. But in 2005, when the tour revised its schedule, Booz Allen was offered an October date, meaning it wouldn’t even be part of the new FedEx Cup schedule. A fall date – in the middle of the football season and with no real incentive for top players to show up – was untenable. Booz Allen said no thank you and the last Booz Allen Classic was held in 2006.
Fittingly, this tournament ended on a Tuesday after several days of heavy rain, with no spectators allowed on the pitch to witness the conclusion. The rainy and empty golf course reflected how badly the tournament had fallen. The only thing it had in common with the glittering event once hosted by Congress was that the winner – Ben Curtis – was a great champion.
Just when it looked like the tour would leave the DC area for good, fate – and sponsorships – came to the rescue. The International, an event played outside of Denver, was also struggling to find sponsors. Feeling that his event was not sufficiently supported by the PGA Tour, tournament founder Jack Vickers folded it.
At that time, Tiger Woods was the dominant player in golf. He wanted his own event, ala Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Commissioner Tim Finchem thought it was a great idea, and Congress was willing to host again in exchange for the higher tour rental fee and Woods’ attendance.
But the relationship between the tour, Woods and the club began to deteriorate even before Woods’ infamous car accident in November 2009. During a “public meeting” to discuss a contract renewal in 2008, a a number of members expressed concern about abandoning the club for a week in the middle of summer when school was out, regardless of the rental fees. Finchem said tournament sponsor AT&T held an event in Atlanta in May that was on the way out and it was possible the tournament could be moved to earlier in the year. Atlanta left, but DC’s date was never moved until Memorial Day.
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But the moment that more or less sealed the relationship between Woods and the members came when someone asked Woods why the club would want to hold a midsummer event. Woods looked shocked. “Why wouldn’t you want to organize this event?” ” he has answered.
For the record, I’m a member of Congress. I voted to renew the contract and it was renewed, barely – by a margin of 52% to 48%.
Woods’ relationship with the club began to crack after the accident. AT&T pulled out as title sponsor in 2014 and was replaced by Quicken Loans. The last time the tournament was played in Congress was in 2016. A year later, after the event returned to a redesigned Avenel (now known as TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms), Quicken Loans informed the tour that it would no longer be a title. sponsor, unless its tournament is moved to its Detroit headquarters. The tournament was played one more year in Avenel – without a title sponsor – then disappeared.
That year, I asked new PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan if he thought there would be a tournament in Washington in 2019. “Yeah, I think we’ll find a sponsor,” Monahan said. . He smiled and said, “I can sell anything.”
Apparently, Monahan was unable to sell the nation’s capital to corporate America. The tour goes where the sponsorship money leads. Perhaps the polarized political climate makes the region inhospitable to businesses, who only want good news and talk about their charity work on TV tours.
It may also be that the tour doesn’t care that much about empty here as long as it has a full schedule. Except for the pre-Avenel years and Woods’ early years — all in Congress — the tour treated the DC area like a AAA city.
Much of the problem dates back to the premature move to Avenel in 1987. Love’s line lingers on the touring training grounds. The irony is that it was Love who redesigned the golf course in 2008. Most who have played the rebuilt course love it.
“I think it’s great,” Rory McIlroy said after playing it for the first time on Tuesday. “It’s hard, but it’s fair. I think playing here every year would be good for the tour.
McIlroy is a member of the tour’s board of directors. Maybe he can push Monahan and his sales team to push harder to find a title sponsor.
In the meantime, judging the area over a rainy weekend with decent but unspectacular ground – McIlroy is the only top-10 player to participate – would be unfair. Then again, the tour was rarely just for Washington.
The tour will leave town on Sunday. He may not be back for a very long time.