Finchem Hands Washington a Slap in the Face

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006; 2:28 AM

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has generally been getting decent grades from most in the golfing media for his ability to squeeze another $600 million in purses and other benefits for his players with the tour's recently announced new television deals and revamped schedule that take effect starting in the 2007 season and run through 2012.

"The Little Commissioner Who Could," read one gushing headline in Golfweek Magazine over a story that included an opinion that "no famous dead musician ever did better with smoke and mirrors. Finchem got his players raises while negotiating in a difficult market with fresh blood on the ground."

Yet, in the Nation's Capital there is boiling blood coursing through the veins of anyone who has ever been associated with Washington's annual tour stop, long known as the Kemper Open and now morphed into the Booz Allen Classic, at least for 2006.

Washingtonians have supported the event by the hundreds of thousands ever since it moved from North Carolina in 1980, even if the game's top marquee names almost always avoided the tournament after it moved to the much-maligned TPC at Avenel in 1987. But Finchem, who spent a spell in town himself as an official in the Carter administration, gave local golf fans (not to mention former Commissioner Deane Beman, a Bethesda native) a stinging slap in the face by moving the tournament away from its late spring, early summer date to the Siberia of the fall.

The way the tour sees it, the tournament now will be played in a new fall series of events, long after the last major of the year (the PGA Championship) in August, after the Tour championship in September and after the Ryder or Presidents Cup that same month. In other words, long after interest in golf has waned, particularly in a town that is all Redskins, all the time in the fall.

Finchem keeps insisting that an October event in Washington can be successful, that some top players will show up because no one wants their game to get too rusty, and there will still be incentive for gaining large wads of cash and other benefits that will be made available thanks to the sponsor they will sign up to pay the freight.

The tour would very much like to keep Booz Allen in the sponsorship mix. Never mind that Finchem has given the company the equivalent of the back of his hand over most of the last few years, even as he and his minions have tried to woo B-A to extend its sponsorship for as many as six years beyond its current contract through 2006.

The tour keeps stalling on presenting the sort of comprehensive renovation plan it has been promising for Avenel. The cost to do it right, including an overhaul of the clubhouse and major fixes and re-routing of the golf course, is said to be in the $25 million range, and there already is talk that with the event being moved to the fall, a less costly makeover might now make more sense, at least to the bean counters at tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

It would make no sense for Booz Allen, or any other high profile company, to continue its sponsorship if that is the case. The tour asks its title sponsors to put up about $8 million a year for the right to put its name on an event. What do you get in Washington for that sum? Almost certainly a mediocre field competing on a second-tier golf course in an afterthought event played during a time of year when many area courses are not in the best condition after a long hot summer and seven months of member play.

The tour also has treated Booz Allen rather shabbily in the manners department. The sponsor found out about the new schedule and its banishment to the fall with a phone call less than two hours before the tour announced it to the media in a press conference that would have made the spin control masters at the White House look like a bunch of ward-level political hacks.

The tour has said it is locked into its current schedule, not to mention an unprecedented -- and rather risky--15-year television contract with the Golf Channel to show 15 events in their entirety and first and second round coverage of tournaments covered on the weekend by re-upping partners NBC and CBS.

The Golf Channel deal came about because ESPN and ABC felt they weren't getting enough value for the money they also were plowing into the PGA Tour coffers. The Golf Channel says it's available to 70 million viewers, but industry sources indicate only about 45 million have the service included in their basic cable or satellite packages. Perhaps the tour will help increase those numbers, but it also risks becoming even more of a niche sport without the sort of daily exposure ESPN has provided in the past.

But we digress. With a place on the fall schedule, the tour definitely becomes a niche sport in Washington. There is also talk that the Presidents Cup, staged at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., may be moved to the West Coast -- Riviera in Los Angeles or Harding Park in San Francisco -- in 2009 when the competition is next staged in the U.S. That would be another cruel blow to local fans who have supported the event since its inception in 1994 and deserve far better.

Still, there may be better news on the way.

We're already whispers that the LPGA may be interested in filling the PGA Tour void in Washington. And with Annika Sorenstam, the best female player on the planet, and appealing young American stars like Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer emerging as mega-watt talents, perhaps Booz Allen ought to think about putting its dollars in a far better place, at a far better time of year with world-class players who actually want to come to the Nation's Capital.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company