Washington and the PGA Tour ended a long 38-year marriage on a blistering Sunday afternoon at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm with a heat index over 100 degrees. The next few years will tell us whether this is a long-term divorce or just a trial separation.
In time, will the Tour find a corporate sponsor, a date and perhaps a host with a personal reputation less tarnished than Tiger Woods to revive an annual event in golf-loving D.C., which has backed the sport richly for decades with big crowds, regardless of the quality of the product, including a putrid final field this week?
All areas of golf economics have trended down for a decade, while Washington, which has held a Tour event in 37 of the past 39 summers, still has ideal golf demographics. Money makes predictable bedfellows. The D.C.-PGA Tour match — profitable in the past with weekly crowds of 120,000, sometimes at a mundane course, for events with few stars — may find a spark of romance again.
This breakup happened once before. By 2006, Tour pros had come to dislike this course, owned by the Tour itself, of which Tom Kite once said, “Why did they cut down the 10,000 trees?” Summer storms often made the event a nightmare, with quagmire parking lots and multi-hour traffic jams. Fans often felt as if they had stumbled into an episode of “Survivor.”
Woods brought a Tour event back to Washington 11 years ago. He dreamed up a Fourth of July-themed event that was glamorous for several years, including seven tournaments played at Congressional Country Club.
How things change. These days, getting disassociated from Woods may be part of finding a corporate sponsor to link to a future D.C. Tour event.
Most golf fans probably forgave Woods for his embarrassing sex-capades long ago. Crowds certainly cheered his every step this past week as he finished in a tie for fourth. But corporate types, perhaps locked in group-think, have shied away in unison.
If this is the end of annual summer Tour golf in D.C., then how appropriate that it came on a day when a camel would have begged for a drop of water. Tour events here have had some good times, starting with early-career wins by Greg Norman and Fred Couples as well as a pair of titles by Woods and a moving victory by Naval Academy graduate Billy Hurley III just two years ago at Congressional.
Sunday’s winner, Francesco Molinari, one of a paltry four players here this past week who are ranked among the top 40 in the world — barely a third of what any event with self-respect would offer the public — added a memory with a dazzling closing 62 to end at 21-under-par 259 to win by eight shots.
Even Molinari acknowledged that he came to Avenel — redesigned, renamed and improved in 2009 — because he wanted easy pickings in this pack of pigeons in which the highest-ranked players after Rickie Fowler (who represents Quicken Loans) were Marc Leishman and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
“That start on the back nine was incredible,” Molinari said of his eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie run starting at No. 10. “It was not easy to skip the French Open [on the European Tour where he usually plays]. But I was a long way back in the FedEx standings. I think I made the right decision.”
Easy money, easy points.
“This was as hot as I have ever experienced in my career,” Molinari said of the smoldering weekend with temperatures in the mid-90s on Sunday but a “feels like” index surpassing those numbers. “I kept looking for ice to rub on my face.”
Pro golf’s era in Washington always will be remembered for its bad luck with evil summer weather. Tornadoes, lightning, gales, floods, a blown-down media tent and a derecho in 2012 that tore down dozens of trees at Congressional and forced one round to be played without spectators have become trademarks as well as a local badge of honor. Fans kept coming anyway!
So it stood to reason that, on the last day, the place would just burn up.
For those fans inclined to mourn golf’s departure from D.C., don’t be in a rush to cry. The PGA Tour has never had the resources to be classy. It’s always about following the buck. If you want to know why golf probably will be back, consider how it came to Avenel in the first place.
In the 1980s, former Tour commissioner Deane Beman, a Washingtonian, knew that developers had bought 1,000-acre Avenel Farm to build high-end housing. But a sewage treatment plant was planned in the area. Beman agree to buy 300 acres and put the plant in the center of the golf course; Beman knew the plant actually had no bad smell. Suddenly, those new houses, near the sweet smell of Jack Nicklaus and money, would jump in value.
Beman’s offer for the 300 acres: $1.00. Take it or leave it.
They took it. Then Beman went to his political pals, and, amazingly, the site of the problematic sewage plant suddenly moved to Prince George’s County.
Now, every time the Tour plays an event at TPC Potomac, the Tour saves $1 million to $1.5 million in site fees, which can go into the prize money, rather than find a private club that will charge it that amount to rent a course.
Just watch, the day will come when other Tour stops around the United States fold, as they always have, dates will open on the golf calendar, and suddenly Washington will look like a pot of gold again. Maybe next time, everyone should drive a harder bargain, demand better fields and not be so fast to embrace the prodigal spouse.
It has been fun, all these decades of Tour golf. But it’s also been an education in how sports constantly play one city off against another, vying for a limited supply of events. In the end, when the Tour was ready to skip town, it barely publicized this event. Publicly, Woods maintains that somehow, some way, his event might return in 2019, even though the Tour’s calendar is full and it’s just not happening.
When the day comes that the PGA Tour comes knocking again, and I bet it will, remember this is the outfit that will find a way to buy 300 acres of prime Potomac real estate for $1, that will have fans park in the same hubcap-deep mud fields for years on end, and, when the dance is over, present you with a full-price event in which not one player owns a major tournament and is still close enough to his prime to be in the top 50 in the world.
When it comes to the PGA Tour, two opposite farewell messages both apply: You’re welcome back. But don’t let the door hit you on the way out, either.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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