- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

Ever since Greg Norman subtly suggested that the ninth hole be blown up, Avenel has seemed destined for a major makeover. It’s always been the ugly stepsister of the Potomac golfing scene, the TPC monstrosity across the street from hallowed Congressional Country Club, host to the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Nice homes running through the property but less than nice holes.

We tend to forget, though, that there are some golfers who absolutely adore Avenel. These are the players who owe much of their net worth to the place, players who, not surprisingly, were atop the leader board again yesterday in the Booz Allen Classic: Rich Beem, the 1999 champion (64); Frank Lickliter, the 2000 winner (67); J.J. Henry, the runner-up in 2001 (68). They don’t want to see anybody messing with Their Course.

“I should probably go out and tie myself to a stake if they try changing it,” Beem cracked. The man has cashed so many big checks here — also finishing second in 2002 — that maybe the course should be renamed “TPC Beemer,” as he put it.

“I don’t think it’s a golf course that needs a whole lot of renovation, to be honest with you,” he said after reeling off eight birdies. “It’s not a place where you can shoot 63 or 62 easily. Look at the winning scores. It hardly ever goes past, what, 14, 15, 16 under, maybe? When I won it was 10 under.”

Avenel has been beaten up so much over the years that it’s funny to hear someone speak of it with affection. Lickliter appreciates it, he says, because “it’s a position golf course. There are places you absolutely can’t hit it. It requires control of your golf ball and control of your emotions, and I rather like that. You don’t have to be a long hitter to play here. You have to be able to place your golf ball.”

The example Lickliter cites is Corey Pavin, who was second in 1995 and tied for 10th the following year. “I don’t know if anybody out here hits it shorter than him,” Lickliter said, “and yet he always seemed to play well here. It just shows you how much thinking is required.”

So there’s one argument for keeping Avenel as is: It’s an Everyman’s course, a thinking man’s course, not just one of these grip-it-and-rip-it places.

“If they want to make it tougher,” Lickliter said, “take five yards off each side of the fairway and turn it into rough.”

But other than that, keep your paws off His Avenel.

You can understand some of the alarm these players are feeling. It’s like Ken Griffey Jr. winning the home run title in Seattle and having his bosses tell him, “Guess what? We’re going to build a new stadium and move the fences back.” The difference is that golfers can’t get themselves traded to Cincinnati. All they can do is grin and bear it — or cross Avenel off their schedules.

And such a terrific track it is, too — in the eyes of the guys who have done well here, at least. The back nine, in particular, features “a lot of risk and reward,” Henry said. “You’ve got the [par-5] 13th hole, which is reachable in two. You’ve got the 14th, where you can drive the green — or wind up with a 5 or 6. You’ve got the creek running through several holes [plus water on the par-3 17th]. …”

Amazing, isn’t it? These former champs (and near champs) can make Avenel, one of the more nondescript tour stops around, sound like Augusta National.

And to them, of course, it is. It’s the site of Beem’s and Lickliter’s first tour victories, the site of Henry’s best finish. It’s sacred ground — sort of.

“I won on this course the first time I ever played it,” said Beem. “Other courses you win on, you might struggle for a few years first. But the first time I saw [Avenel], I fell in love with it. And whenever you come back to a golf course that’s treated you well in the past, you just lick your chops.”

Beem certainly enjoyed himself yesterday. He even flirted with David Duval’s tournament record of 62, birdieing seven of the first 10 holes, before settling for his 64. It’s not like he came into the Booz Allen on a roll, either. His year has been pretty horrific so far: nine missed cuts and no top 25s in 16 events. But now he’s at Avenel. Now he’s … home.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” he said, when asked to explain his success here.

No need to overanalyze it, really. This is the TPC Beemer — and he’s the head pro. For now, anyway. Until the bulldozers show up.

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