Brundred Driven by a Love of the Game

Longtime golf tournament director Ben Brundred died Friday at the age of 83.
Longtime golf tournament director Ben Brundred died Friday at the age of 83. "He was very popular with the players," his son, Ben Brundred Jr., said. (1997 Photo By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
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By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Over the last 20 years, it was never all that difficult to find Ben Brundred, the longtime tournament director for Washington's annual PGA Tour event.

If you needed him between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., he was almost always at his desk in his clubhouse office overlooking the 18th green at TPC at Avenel in Potomac. Between 3:30 and 6 p.m., you simply called the men's grill at Congressional Country Club -- now politically corrected to the Senate Pub -- and asked for Mr. Brundred. He always took the call at the table where he was playing gin rummy with his longtime pals, many of whom he recruited over the years to head various volunteer committees for the Kemper Open or later, the Booz Allen Classic.

Sadly, there was an empty seat at that card table yesterday afternoon, and forever more. Ben Brundred died Friday evening from a heart attack at 83.

A single-digit handicapper well into his 60s, Brundred joined Congressional in 1964 and was voted club president in 1979. Over the years, he also had become friendly with Jim Kemper, chairman and chief executive of the Kemper Insurance company. Kemper was intrigued by the idea of moving the Kemper Open from Quail Hollow in Charlotte to the nation's capital, where he thought the event might get more exposure at a venue like Congressional, host to the 1964 U.S. Open and 1976 PGA Championship.

With Brundred's considerable help, he eventually made it happen. And when it became obvious that retired player Labron Harris, the first tournament director for the Washington tournament, was slightly in over his head, Kemper eventually prevailed on Brundred to first serve as a management consultant to the tournament, and then to run the event when Harris retired in 1985.

Brundred was entering retirement mode himself at that point. He was 60, winding down a long career in the aviation industry, including starting his own import/export and cargo company in 1968 while working as a longtime volunteer for the Maryland State Golf Association and serving as its president in 1981. He had been looking forward to playing more golf (and gin rummy, no doubt) and helping stage amateur events in Maryland when Kemper prevailed on him to replace Harris as tournament director.

What Brundred thought would be a short-term favor turned into a long-term commitment. He tried to retire from running the tournament several times over the next 20 years, but he was always talked back into that Avenel office. When he gave up the title for good in 2005, he was named the tournament's emeritus chairman of the board, and still showed up more than occasionally to help out.

When the event was staged at Congressional from 1980 to 1986, Brundred did not have to worry much about attracting decent fields. All the best players came to town because they loved the venue, not to mention one of the more lucrative purses on the tour. But in 1987, when the tournament moved to Avenel, about a five-minute drive from Congressional's River Road entrance, Brundred's life became far more complicated.

The PGA Tour built and owned TPC at Avenel and insisted that the tournament be staged at its facility in '87, even though Brundred and others knew the course was at least a year away from being ready for big-time golf. Many of the pros who showed up were so unimpressed they badmouthed the place to their playing peers, perpetuating the image of a second-tier course and complicating Brundred's recruiting efforts for years.

Still, Brundred soldiered on, staging an event that usually drew 50,000 to 60,000 fans on the weekend, occasionally persuading a Fred Couples, a Davis Love III, a Greg Norman, a Phil Mickelson, to play. He almost had Tiger Woods one year, until Woods tweaked his back slightly the week before and withdrew to save himself for the U.S. Open.

Brundred did not complain publicly about Woods never playing or about the mostly lousy dates the PGA Tour always gave him. But privately he grew increasingly frustrated with the tour hierarchy and a new era of players.

"He was very popular with the players, because he never lied to them," his son, Ben Brundred Jr., said the other day. "If he couldn't do something for them, he'd tell them, and that was it. They respected that. In recent years, he just felt the whole business had changed, and not really to his liking."

Still, Brundred kept going, working with a limited budget, a rotten date, under three different corporate entities over the last 10 years of his tenure, doing anything in his power to get the best fields he possibly could.

While they're enjoying Woods's AT&T National this Fourth of July weekend, professional golf fans in the Washington area would be wise to pause for a moment to pay tribute to Brundred, a selfless, soft-spoken gentleman.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company