Tiger Woods did his best to be a congenial host this week at the newly named — and sponsored — Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club.
For starters, he spent 35 minutes talking to the media Tuesday, more than double the time he usually spends. He was surprisingly candid, saying he would not be playing if he weren’t the host and the event didn’t benefit his foundation. That contradicted his agent, Mark Steinberg, who told The Post that Woods’s decision was “a coincidence.”
Even after an opening-round 74 on Thursday and an ugly 75 in the second round left him four shots below the cut line, Woods willingly answered questions and signed autographs.
Clearly, he was trying to be cordial and with good reason: The future of his tournament is very much in doubt.
Not the short-term future. When AT&T pulled out a year ago as the title sponsor, a mad scramble ensued. It hasn’t been easy for the tour to find new sponsors since the economy collapsed six years ago, and Woods isn’t the corporate magnet he once was. Quicken Loans finally agreed to a four-year contract in March, and one reason Woods played here was to keep his new sponsor happy.
But the tournament’s dependency on Woods the player was even more evident this year than last, when he didn’t play because of an elbow injury. Before his June 20 announcement that he would play, ticket sales were way down and sponsorships had dropped to the point that the pro-am wasn’t close to sold out. Even after Woods announced he would play, the pro-am didn’t sell out.
But everything else did pick up. “We went from a C/C+ in advertising sales to an A-/B+,” one local TV executive said. “We were dying on the vine until [Tiger] said he was going to play.”
When this tournament was launched in 2007, it was with about as much fanfare as any non-major in golf. The host was Woods, who at the time was a transcendent figure, arguably the most popular athlete on the planet. Woods wanted the event at Congressional and — voila! — Congressional became the site. The days of the Kemper Open and the Booz-Allen Classic struggling to get a respectable field to show up at TPC Avenel (now TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms) were in the past.
Woods never played in the old event, which was held in Washington from 1980 to 2006. But with his name on the tournament, Washington went from a PGA Tour afterthought to an important stop.
Almost every big-name player, including the big-name player, came that first year. Even though Woods didn’t win — K.J. Choi did — the crowds were massive, and the future of the event seemed assured.
Except it wasn’t that simple. Woods didn’t play in 2008 because he had had surgery. Then came a contentious meeting with Woods, Commissioner Tim Finchem and Congressional members who weren’t certain they wanted to commit to a contract extension. At one point, when someone asked Woods exactly why club members would want to banish themselves from the premises — except as ticket-holders — for nine days in the middle of the summer, Woods said, “Why wouldn’t you want to?”
That answer and tone didn’t sit well with the membership, which may explain why only 52 percent of those voting approved of the extension even though the rental fee was the highest on the PGA Tour.
With Woods still flying high, the 2009 event — won by the host — drew more than 194,000 people. Then came Woods’s crash — literally and figuratively.
Even so, almost five years after his private life became a punch line, no one drives TV ratings or attendance like Woods. Last year, without Woods, the tournament drew fewer than 147,000 fans. What’s more, there were serious questions about whether Congressional would pick up the three-year option after this year’s tournament. Tour officials began looking at other sites, but Woods categorically refused to consider their No. 1 choice — the redesigned TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms.
A compromise was reached: Congressional agreed to the extension but only every other year, meaning the tournament will need a different site in 2015, 2017 and 2019. It will go to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club next year and come back to Congressional in two years, with a Memorial Day weekend date.
In 2020, Woods will be 44. Given his history with injuries, it is difficult to know how much he will be playing or how well he will be playing by then. There will be no more extensions with Congressional after 2020; the club wants to host the U.S. Open in 2026, and USGA executive director Mike Davis has made it clear the USGA won’t commit to the Open until it knows the PGA Tour event is gone.
With Congressional out and Woods a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the tournament’s long-term future is definitely a question mark. Woods is fully aware he’s going to have to work hard to ensure an extension from Quicken Loans and he’s going to have to find a permanent home post-2020.
The announced attendance for the first two days this week was 56,378 — up almost 5,000 from last year. With Woods long gone Saturday, even though the weather was close to perfect, the crowds appeared sparse.
On Friday evening, before leaving, Woods insisted he wasn’t that far away from playing good golf again. Apparently how much golf he can play for the next five to 10 years will play a major role in deciding the future of both his tournament and professional golf in the D.C. area.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.