A Last Hurrah For PGA In Area?

"How can you not have a tournament in the nation's capital?" asked Tom Kite, who played in Wednesday's pro-am. (John Mcdonnell - Twp)
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Tom Kite won the first Kemper Open when it moved from Congressional to TPC Avenel in 1987, and Kite is in the field again for the final Booz Allen Classic starting this morning at the same venue. He said yesterday he was outraged that Washington may lose its annual place on the PGA Tour schedule.

"I think it would go way beyond surprised. I think it would be shocked," he said of his initial reaction when he heard the Washington event was in jeopardy. "I think it's a travesty. How can you not have a tournament in the nation's capital, especially a tournament that has been good throughout the years?"

When the tour announced an overhaul of its schedule beginning with the 2007 season, Washington lost its regular place in the late spring-early summer and was left with only the possibility of a fall date. That prompted McLean-based Booz Allen to give up thoughts of renewing its three-year deal as the event's title sponsor. The tour says it is still trying to put on a fall tournament at Avenel, likely to be played the week after the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, but no title sponsor has been found.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was scheduled to be at Avenel yesterday for a news conference but did not make it because inclement weather in Columbus, Ohio, delayed his flight. In a conference call with reporters at the course, he said the tour remains committed to putting a "good, solid tournament in Washington in the fall" and now is prepared to wait at least until September, if not longer, to secure a title sponsor.

"Certainly there isn't any consideration for moving in a direction where we would intentionally not play tournament golf in Washington," he said. "It's not a direction we intend to go."

Finchem also said for the first time publicly that one of the major reasons the tour eliminated Washington from the spring-summer schedule was the reluctance of Booz Allen to accept a slot the week after the U.S. Open. He said the tour was offering a combination of dates before and after the Open but that Booz Allen was unwilling to go forward with a long-term commitment under those conditions. He also said the tour still intends to start an $18 million to $20 million renovation of the course and clubhouse at TPC Avenel that likely will take place in 2007.

"Booz Allen made it clear from Day One about certain date limitations after the U.S. Open," Finchem said. "That more or less dovetailed with our attitude that continuing to move the tournament back and forth [before and after the Open] was not consistent with being able to stage the kind of event and to have continuity of sponsorship. The main thing, the main point of Booz Allen, is they did not want to play anything after the Open. That was troublesome for us."

Booz Allen chairman Ralph Shrader disputed Finchem's version of events. He said the last formal communication he received from the tour on dates for the tournament came in February 2005. He said the tour at that point offered a four-year sponsorship cycle that would have included three dates before the Open and a fourth after the Open, with the possibility of staging all four before the Open.

"That was the last formal communication we had with the tour," Shrader said. "At that point they also said they would finalize the plans to renovate the course at Avenel and they'd get back to us. They got back to me two hours before they said [in a news conference in January] they had moved the event to the fall.

"We did not have the opportunity to say no. I won't allow it to be perceived that Booz Allen cost the Washington area the event. We worked too hard and spent too much money [about $30 million over three years] to make it a first-class event. I'm not going to accept any blame for what happened. It's all in the tour's court."

This week's event, starting four days after the conclusion of a grueling U.S. Open at Winged Foot, is missing virtually all of the game's top names. Brett Wetterich, 13th on the tour's money list after winning the Byron Nelson Championship in May, is the only player entered here among the top 30 on the money list.

In recent weeks, the tournament also suffered a number of significant withdrawals, including U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, 2004 winner and 2005 runner-up Adam Scott and, on Monday, defending champion Sergio Garcia and 2005 Masters runner-up Chris DiMarco.

Most longtime tournament observers say this year's field is the weakest since the event moved from Charlotte in 1980. Last year's tournament, played at Congressional the week before the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, drew one of the best fields in history, topped only by the 1997 event played the week before the U.S. Open that year at Congressional.

Still, there are plenty of familiar names and highly skilled players entered, including nine former major champions and local favorite Fred Funk, the former Maryland golf coach who will try one more time to win his hometown event in his 21st appearance.

Funk, who is on the tournament's board of governors, also said yesterday he was troubled about the fate of his favorite event on the schedule.

"I'm really upset the way things unfolded the way they did," he said. "I just feel like D.C. is a market we should be playing in at any cost. It's always been supported by the town. To me, there's no excuse."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company