- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem went sponsorship fishing yesterday at TPC at Avenel, dangling promises of a massive renovation to the maligned facility on the eve of this week’s lame duck Booz Allen Classic.

“We’re planning to spend 18 to 20 million dollars on a facility in Washington that we fully intend to be a facility that lends itself to the highest level of competition at some point in the future,” said Mr. Finchem, via teleconference. “I don’t want there to be any question in anybody’s mind that there has ever been a hesitation to move forward with this project.”

That’s precisely the kind of concrete commitment that current sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton wanted from the tour several months ago, when the combination of an indefinite renovation timetable and an undesirable slot on the tour’s schedule prompted the company to step away from the role as title sponsor of the area’s premier annual professional golf tournament.

With Booz Allen’s contract up after this week, KemperSports Management has been feverishly attempting to secure a new title sponsor for the event, a major challenge considering that the tournament would be forced to the fall portion of the 2007 schedule and excluded from next season’s FedEx Cup race. Starting next season, the PGA Tour will award points to players for high finishes in a series of featured events throughout the meat of its season, crowning a NASCAR-style points champion at the Tour Championship (Sept. 13-16).

The handful of events following the Tour Championship and the conclusion of the FedEx Cup are certain to be sparsely attended by the world’s highest echelon of players and top draws (players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson). Booz Allen wanted no part of playing host to such an event, and KemperSports has struggled to find another company willing to make a multiyear financial commitment to sponsoring a second-tier PGA Tour event in the fall in football-crazed Washington.

Though Mr. Finchem stated yesterday that no drop-dead date has been set for the sponsorship search, he did admit that the tour likely would need a commitment by mid-September. If no sponsor is found over the next three months, the date being held for the tournament (Oct. 4-7) would be awarded to another city, ending Washington’s 27-year run as a tour stop.

“I think it’s a travesty,” said Tom Kite, the Hall of Famer who won the inaugural event at Avenel (1987) and is back this week as part of the Booz Allen’s decidedly weak field. “How can you not have a tournament in our nation’s capital, especially a tournament that has been this good throughout the years? … It doesn’t make sense to me.”

It makes sense to anyone who has tried to sell Avenel to either sponsors or the world’s top golfers. The brainchild of former PGA Tour commissioner Dean Beman, Avenel has been one of the least popular layouts on tour since its opening, suffering mightily in juxtaposition to sometime tournament host and two-time U.S. Open venue Congressional Country Club.

Even in boon years when the event drew a favorable date, many players showed up at Avenel in spite of the course. That’s why Mr. Finchem’s promise yesterday could go a long way toward cementing the event’s future in the area.

“The plans that they had to redo the golf course, I was involved [with] a little bit,” said former Maryland golf coach and local favorite Fred Funk yesterday. “I’ve seen the plans. They’re remarkable. … The changes, if they were done properly, would make this one of the best TPCs we have, if not the best, if they went and followed through with it.”

According to Mr. Finchem, the tour has a permitting hearing with Montgomery County on July 21. And pending the results of that hearing, renovations would commence over the next two years, even if a sponsor is not found for next year. Such changes represent a massive carrot for a potential sponsor, though it’s clear that the event would have to be played elsewhere either in 2007 or 2008 while the layout was being renovated.

This plan might sound familiar, as it’s almost the identical proposal the tour made to Booz Allen several years ago. The event’s move to Congressional last year was supposed to provide a renovation window for the tour at Avenel. When no overhaul took place at Avenel, Booz Allen felt betrayed.

“The planning took too long. The permitting process was too long,” Mr. Finchem said yesterday. “We’re headed to a situation now where we will do the work in ‘07.”

One thing is almost certain: If the plans are as impressive as advertised, and if the tour does spend nearly $20 million on the renovation, it isn’t likely to undertake such an endeavor for an event it plans to let stagnate with a forgettable fall date.

Mr. Finchem stated clearly that a future move into the FedEx Cup and back into a more favorable slot on the schedule is a distinct possibility for the tournament after the 2008 season. And though Booz Allen is undoubtedly more interested in proof than promises, that’s a possibility that could make Booz and the PGA Tour bedfellows once again.

“Absolutely, we’d be interested,” said Booz Allen Hamilton President and CEO Dr. Ralph Shrader, when asked yesterday if his company would consider returning as the title sponsor of the event at a renovated Avenel. “Under the right conditions — and those conditions are venue and date — we feel confident we could host a very good event in Washington.”

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