In June of 2014, I wrote a column in The Washington Post about the future of what was then called The Quicken Loans National in PGA Tour language, but to most golf fans was known simply as, “Tiger’s tournament.”
The event had started in 2007 and was an instant hit in the Washington, D.C. area. For years, D.C. had hosted an event under various corporate names. When the tour moved it in 1987 from Congressional Country Club — one of the better golf courses in the country, a past—and future—site for major championships — to the TPC Avenel, the field for the event went rapidly downhill.
Greg Norman, on first seeing the golf course, suggested a few changes including, “blowing up the ninth hole.” Years later, when the course was renovated, the ninth hole WAS blown up. Ben Brundred, who was chairman of what was then the Kemper Open, a man with a dry sense of humor and a keen sense of public relations, invited Norman to come back and push the plunger.
Davis Love III summed up what the players thought of Avenel succinctly: “It isn’t a BAD golf course,” he said. “Unless you have to drive past Congressional to get there.”
Which the pros did — the entrances to the two clubs being a little more than a mile apart. The tour owned Avenel, meaning it didn’t have to pay a rental fee. Plus, it was then-commissioner Dean Beman’s baby. Beman had grown up in the Washington area and the idea of building a stadium-type golf course surrounded by homes had largely been his. The name of the road just prior to the turn-off for the clubhouse was (and is) Beman Woods Way. No way was the tournament not going to be played there once the golf course opened.
From the day it moved to Avenel until the moment the PGA Tour announced the event was going away in 2006, the Kemper/FBR/Booz-Allen Open couldn’t seem to catch a break. The golf course’s reputation didn’t help, but nothing else seemed to go right either. In 1998, when Tiger-mania was near its peak, Woods agreed to come play. Brundred held a press conference to make the announcement, complete with details about the security that would surround his appearance and exactly when Woods would be available to the media—which was almost not at all.
“Being honest,” Brundred said. “You guys aren’t going to see much of him except when he’s on the golf course.”
On the Monday of tournament week, Brundred was sitting in his office, smiling at the thought of the hordes of fans (and corporate sponsors) who were going to invade Avenel that week, when his phone rang. Could he please hold for Tiger Woods?
“Uh-oh,” Brundred remembered thinking.
Woods came on the phone and apologetically told Brundred he’d tweaked his shoulder and, with the U.S. Open a week away, didn’t want to take any chances with it. So, he was withdrawing. He was very sorry and he promised he’d come the following year.
“Not much I could say,” Brundred said. “I gave him credit for making the call himself.”
The next day Brundred had to hold another press conference. When he told the media what had happened, someone asked what his reaction was after hanging up the phone.
“There’s a reason I keep a bottle of bourbon in my desk drawer,” he said, never losing his sense of humor.
Woods didn’t play the next year. In fact, he didn’t come to play in Washington until the tournament had his name on it — in 2007.
By then his was a transcendent name in sport. He had won 12 majors — he would win two more in the next year — and was a one-name star: Tiger. Washington is a town that loves stars. Just when it looked like D.C. would be without a golf tournament at all, it had one with Woods’ name on it, which meant that almost every big name in the sport came to play. Even Phil Mickelson, who barely spoke to Woods (and vice-versa) in those days, showed up.
The cracks began to show up in 2008. Woods won the U.S. Open in a dramatic playoff with Rocco Mediate, then had to have surgery on his knee and broken leg and couldn’t play. He came to a town hall meeting at Congressional with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to discuss a contract extension with the membership. The initial contract was for three years — through 2009 — with the understanding that the event would leave Congressional for two years because the U.S. Open would be played there in 2011.
The membership wasn’t all that pleased with giving up its club for a week in mid-summer, even though it was receiving the highest rental fee on tour ($1.5 million a year) and members could play through Sunday before tournament week. Most clubs have to give up their facility 10 to 14 days before a tour event.
One woman stood up at one point and said to Woods and Finchem, “Why would we want to give our club up to you mid-summer with our kids out of school?”
Woods gave her a disdainful look and said, “Why wouldn’t you?”
Finchem calmed the waters a little by implying that once new TV contracts were in place, the event might move to pre-Memorial Day — before kids were out of school. The club voted—barely; 52 percent to 48 percent with the board pushing hard to get the votes because it wanted the money—to sign a new contract.
Woods played in 2012 but that year a huge storm, a derecho, struck Washington on Friday night of tournament week and the Saturday round was played with no fans allowed in. Too many downed trees around the golf course. Wood won — and no doubt enjoyed the quiet on Saturday.
It was two years later that I wrote the column mentioned above. Woods had been out hurt (again) and, at the last minute, announced he would play at Congressional. Ticket sales were awful and so were corporate sales. Given that the tournament was played “for the benefit of the Tiger Woods Foundation,” he didn’t like that. By then, the agreement between the Foundation and Congressional had been rewritten so that the tournament was only going to played there in even numbered years through 2020.
After that, the club had made it clear it was getting out of the Woods business. It wanted to host another U.S. Open and the USGA had made it clear it wasn’t coming back if a PGA Tour event was being player there. Plus, the stain from the 2009 revelations about Woods’spersonal life was still on him. No one could criticize him for being injured but he had made only token drive-through (fly-through actually) appearances when he couldn’t play, not interested in being an actual “host,” even though he was listed as such.
Woods admitted he was coming back to play only because it was his event (his agent, Mark Steinberg had insisted the previous week it was, “coincidence”) then shot 74-75 to miss the cut comfortably.
The next day I walked the golf course once the leaders were all playing. There was NO ONE there. I wrote the column that day wondering about the future of the event when Woods was no longer playing. I had no idea how soon that would be, but the point was that it was losing Congressional as the venue; star players no longer felt they had to play because Woods’s star had faded on and off the course and the sheen was clearly off the tournament.
The next day the PR woman for the event called my boss and the Post’s golf writer screaming that the column was all wrong and demanding corrections. She never called me. There were no corrections. Still, I was pilloried in the local media—including by the Post’s golf writer—for my ‘negative,’ column. And, of course, there were the usual people chiming in to say I’d written the column because I didn’t like Tiger. One of the main points of the column was how vital Woods was to the event; that he needed to eventually be comfortable as a host — not just a player.
Three years later, the event is all but deal – even sooner than I’d imagined. Quicken Loans ran for the hills the second its four-year deal was over this past June. The event was held at the re-named and renovated TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, which in a twist, was re-done by — wait for it – Davis Love and is a much-improved golf course. Almost no name players showed—Rickie Fowler, because he’s paid by Quicken Loans; Justin Thomas because he’s a good guy. Attendance was even worse throughout the week than that Saturday at Congressional. Woods decided that was the week to go to rehab after his Memorial Day DUI arrest and was nowhere to be found. The place was empty. It had the feel of a Web.com event.
On Monday, Congressional announced that the tour had formally pulled the plug on its contract for next year and 2020. The tour and the Woods Foundation won’t admit the tournament is dead in D.C. but it is on life support. The tour is negotiating a new deal with Quicken Loans — for an event in Detroit. Its backup sponsor is 3M. which wants its Minneapolis Senior event to become a regular tour event. Third choice? Play one year at Avenel — no rental fee since the tour owns it — without a title sponsor and then quietly say goodbye when the schedule is done over in 2019.
What a sad ending for what started out as a great event. I hate to say I told you so, but…
John Feinstein’s 11th Young Adult mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White was published earlier this month. His new non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be out on October 24th. See his twitter @JFeinsteinbooks for pre-publication reviews. Both can be ordered online now.