In the next two months, the PGA Tour will make a final decision on how to improve TPC at Avenel into a course and facility that will attract more of the best players in the world to the Booz Allen Classic.
According to Steve Lesnik, chief executive officer of Kemper Sports Management, which runs the tournament and owns or operates 70 courses around the country, changes could range from a tweaking to a major overhaul of the course, as well as significant improvements to the clubhouse, driving range and other critical infrastructure facilities.
Lesnik held out the possibility that if the entire facility is not improved to the satisfaction of title sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton, there is a possibility the company would seek another location in the Washington area. But he also indicated the tour is firm in its commitment to achieve what Booz Allen CEO Ralph Shrader has described as a "world-class facility" at Avenel in order to keep the tournament at its current location.
The tour owns the Avenel facility as part of its 25-course Tournament Players Network. Booz Allen Hamilton, the McLean-based title sponsor through at least 2006, has paid about $7 million a year to the tour for that three-year sponsorship and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was at the facility earlier in the week for meetings with Lesnik, Shrader and other tournament officials. They also discussed getting a better date for the tournament on the schedule past 2006.
Lesnik said yesterday Finchem indicated that "the tour recognizes that Avenel suffers from a lack of acceptance from some of the players. There continues to be a split attitude on the part of everyone toward the course, both tour circles and influential golf circles. Some people believe it's an outstanding course that suffers from Greg Norman's initial criticism [when it opened in 1987]. Some players believe it's an interesting, challenging, somewhat quirky course, and a fine course the way it is."
The tour has asked at least three unidentified golf architects to examine the course and make recommendations. The tour, Lesnik said, would pay for any renovations to the entire facility. Finchem told Lesnik that he will also seek input from players about the course, and that within the next 30 to 60 days, the tour will make a final decision on a plan for renovation and how long that will take.
Finchem was not available to comment yesterday. PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs confirmed the tour does have a study underway but that "we have not reached any decision on the scope of the changes. The study is just getting cranked up now, and we'll go from there."
Depending on the recommendation, the cost likely will run between $10 million and $20 million, according to several tournament officials. Lesnik, who declined to comment on the possible cost, said he was not yet familiar with any recommendations of architects he also declined to name.
"At this point, there are two schools of thought locally and on the tour," Lesnik said. "It could be anything from rerouting the course to tweaking a half a dozen holes, or a substantial tweaking to more holes. Some people think the architects could say 'tear it up,' or that it would only be a modification job. Everyone thinks the course can be naturally improved with its current routing. As we speak, I think the routing will remain the same."
Three holes that have always been somewhat controversial among the players are the 520-yard No. 6 hole, the 166-yard No. 9 and the 524-yard No. 13.
"Some people say change them, other people have said no who are proponents of those holes," Lesnik said. "That's golf. Fred Funk, who's now on our board, is in the moderate tweak camp. He believes it's a good course that needs some holes improved."
Several players have said this week they like the course the way it is, including former Kemper Open champions Rich Beem and Frank Lickliter II.
"But it's clear the venue is a major factor in the determination of the quality of our field," Lesnik said. "The clubhouse needs to be fixed. We did some media interviews this week in an employee changing area because we're running out of space. The building needs to be substantially updated, because accoutrements at other facilities put us at a disadvantage."
Next year's Booz Allen will be played at Congressional Country Club while renovations are being made. Because of that club's storied reputation as a major championship venue, Booz Allen officials have said they expect to attract the best field in tournament history because the event will be played the week before the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
"The tour wants to have the event here [in Washington]," Lesnik said. "The business and golf leaders of the community want to keep the event in Washington. That's not an issue. The tour is committed to addressing the issues of this facility. All our indications are that they're prepared to do what it takes right here [at Avenel]."