Rory McIlroy is back for his first tournament in Montgomery County since he ran away with the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. Despite the small sample size, the four-time major champion has an appreciation for the D.C. area’s vibrant support of golf.
“This market and this area deserve a PGA tournament every year if there can be one here,” McIlroy said Wednesday morning following a nine-hole pro-am on a course he’s playing for the first time. “I thought this course is very underrated just because of the golf clubs it’s surrounded by, but this is a very, very good golf course. I’d love to have PGA Tour event in this area every year.”
That had been the case for decades since the tournament known as the Kemper Open came to Congressional in 1980 before shifting to TPC Potomac, previously called TPC Avenel, from 1987 through 2006 (with the exception of 2005, when it was held at Congressional).
In 2007, Tiger Woods signed on as host of the tournament, which went through several title sponsors but remained in the D.C. suburbs, including a stop at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville in 2015, for all but two of its 12 editions.
But even with Woods’s considerable clout, the D.C. area fell off the PGA Tour schedule when a title sponsor could not be secured. Since Francesco Molinari won the last event here in its 2018 iteration as the National, the closest the PGA Tour has come was the 2021 BMW Championship at Caves Valley outside Baltimore.
“This is one of the major markets that does not have an annual tour stop,” said Gary Sobba, the Wells Fargo Championship’s tournament director. “It’s a challenge to the community. Do fans want golf here, whether it’s occasional or whether it’s annual? I think this weekend hopefully they’ll come out, embrace it, support it and we’ll have big crowds — and we anticipate that.”
Ticket sales have been brisk, tournament officials said, despite a forecast calling for showers for much of Friday and Saturday. Still, the cooler, damp conditions, players suggested, are a welcome relief from when the PGA Tour came to the D.C. area in July amid oppressive humidity and temperatures approaching 100 degrees.
The Wells Fargo field also generated elevated interest, but most of the top-ranked Americans will not be here. Spectators surrounded the practice facility Wednesday to get a glimpse of not only McIlroy but also others ranked in the top 20 — such as Tony Finau, who tied for second last week at the Mexico Open.
Major champions Zach Johnson (2007 Masters, 2015 British Open), Patrick Reed (2018 Masters), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open), Jason Day (2015 PGA Championship) and Gary Woodland (2019 U.S. Open) are in the field, too, as are No. 20 Abraham Ancer, No. 23 Tyrrell Hatton and No. 25 Matt Fitzpatrick.
“It’s a great area,” said Simpson, who tees off at 7:34 a.m. Thursday in a group with McIlroy and Molinari. “So much to do, so much history obviously. To be honest, I hope we get another event in this area every year. I think we will.”
The field will compete for a winner’s check of $1.62 million. McIlroy is the reigning champion, but his victory last year came at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. The tournament moved to TPC Potomac this year because Quail Hollow is preparing to host the Presidents Cup in September.
TPC Potomac has been drawing rave reviews from players, a dramatic reversal from the days when Greg Norman called for the demolition of the No. 9 green before the first Kemper Open there. The course underwent an 18-hole renovation beginning in August 2007 that took 20 months to complete. More recently, tweaks were made to the fairways and greens.
Denny McCarthy has the uncommon perspective of having played the course pre- and post-redesign. The three-time first-team All-Met selection played high school golf at Georgetown Prep, a short drive from TPC Potomac, and attended tournaments at the course throughout his childhood.
McCarthy, who later starred at the University of Virginia before heading to the professional ranks, played nine holes at TPC Potomac on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to refresh his memory. He has been inundated with ticket requests from family and friends, including former high school teammates.
“It feels great to be back here this week,” said McCarthy, who also played at TPC Potomac in 2018. “... This is one I had circled on my calendar for a while. The course is in unbelievable shape, so really excited to play it this week.”
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