What's next for Tiger Woods's PGA Tour stop?
Thursday, July 1, 2010
NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA. -- The pomp and circumstance that opened the AT&T National here Wednesday could have been at Congressional Country Club a year ago. A cannon fired, a fife-and-drum corps played, Tiger Woods joined officials from his foundation in taking in the festivities, and the field of 120 golfers roundly praised the golf course. Same stuff, different venue.
But this year's tournament, the fourth since Woods's team first conceived of and organized an event in 2007, is an evolving entity. It will be played on a different golf course in a different market with Woods, golf's No. 1 player, in a different role, still as its most marketable commodity but not as its official host in the wake of his well-documented personal travails.
The circumstances put all of the organizers -- officials from both the Tiger Woods Foundation and AT&T, the title sponsor, as well as those from the PGA Tour -- in something of an awkward spot: trying to trumpet the two-year stop at Aronimink Golf Club and laud Philadelphia as a vibrant golf market while simultaneously pledging allegiance to Washington, which will have a summer without a PGA Tour event for the first time since 1979.
"We're delighted to be back in Philadelphia," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said here Wednesday, a day prior to the opening round. Moments later, when asked about Washington, Finchem said, "We don't see leaving the Washington market."
Such is the dance the AT&T National, and thus the tour, found itself in when Congressional decided it needed two years off so it could first rebuild its greens and then host the 2011 U.S. Open. Tournament organizers, however, have tried to indicate their affinity for Washington even as the event moved away. Last month, Woods's foundation announced the locations of campuses in the District for the Tiger Woods Learning Center, educational facilities serving underprivileged kids. And just after the tournament departed Congressional last year -- when Woods won his own event -- they announced that anyone with a driver's license from the District, Maryland or Virginia could attend this year's event at Aronimink for free.
"Since we brought the tournament to Washington, we've said we did it because we thought it would be a perfect place to have an East Coast footprint," said Greg McLaughlin, the tournament's director who also serves as the president and CEO of Woods's foundation. "We think Philadelphia is a good fit, too, but I think we're showing our commitment to Washington -- opening the learning center -- and have said that we want to be there for a long, long time."
The short-term future of the AT&T National is clear: It will be held at Aronimink -- a gem of a Donald Ross course that hosted the 1962 PGA Championship and the 1977 U.S. Amateur -- this year and next, allowing Congressional to stage its third Open. The event will return to Congressional in 2012-14, a move approved in 2008. Back then, more than 1,500 of the club's members cast ballots, and the measure passed by just 37 votes.
So the questions arise after that. Congressional holds a three-year option, and after the 2013 tournament, the club's membership will vote on whether to bring back Woods's event in 2015-17.
Officials from the club and the tournament believe it's too early to tell whether Congressional will host the event beyond 2014. But in discussing golf's future in Washington on Wednesday, Finchem was quick to point out that the Champions Tour, for players 50 and over, is holding its Senior Players Championship in October at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, the overhauled course that is all but adjacent to Congressional. That course, when it was known as TPC Avenel, hosted Washington's annual PGA Tour stop all but one year from 1987 to 2006.
AT&T would also have to re-up, or Woods's team would have to find a new sponsor, and the company has adjusted its own relationship with Woods since last year. When Woods's widespread infidelity became a matter of public record late last year, AT&T dropped its personal relationship with Woods -- its logo is no longer on his golf bag -- but continued its sponsorship of this event because, as AT&T spokesman Adam Cormier said Wednesday, both AT&T and the Tiger Woods Foundation support educational opportunities for children.
"It's tough to speculate where we're going to be in the future," Cormier said. "Certainly, these types of events are great for us. The charities that we work with deal with education, which is the philanthropic thrust for AT&T. Since that's central to one of our missions, if there's an opportunity to do that, we're going to try to do it."
There remains, too, the complex question of when a Washington event might best thrive. The field, this year, is without 17 of the top 20 players in the world rankings; the top-ranked Woods, fifth-ranked Jim Furyk and No. 14 Robert Allenby are the exceptions. The July 4 weekend is a difficult one for many top players to fit into their schedules. Most of the top European players have moved on to play in Europe in advance of the July 15-18 British Open, and some top American players are taking the week off before traveling across the Atlantic.
To address scheduling concerns -- which can result in weaker fields for some tournaments simply because of their places on the calendar -- the PGA Tour has discussed moving some tournaments around from year to year. That concept, though, almost certainly wouldn't be implemented until 2012 at the earliest, Finchem said. It's possible the AT&T National would settle into a different date when it returns to Congressional -- though some don't believe the calendar drives the best fields.
"If you can put a good golf course out there and a good purse, the best players in the world are going to show up," Furyk said. "It's not a secret."
Furyk counts himself among those who would play any event at Congressional because, as he said, "it's dear to my heart." But he also lavishly praised Aronimink, where he has never played.
"This tournament's always had a big-time feel to me," Furyk said. "Obviously, this was a bit of an awkward year with questions about AT&T and Tiger and what would happen there, but you get to certain events, and there seems to be a little bit of heightened awareness. That's true here, and a lot of it has to do with his foundation and his involvement."