- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

It was perhaps the most fitting conclusion possible for the Booz Allen Classic.

With ominous skies overhead, no gallery watching, no suspense on the docket and only a handful of players on the property, Ben Curtis cleaned up his five-stroke victory yesterday at TPC at Avenel with a tap-in bogey putt.

If this was indeed the last PGA Tour event contested at Avenel, one couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate epitaph.

In spite of the surreal setting which defined the PGA Tour’s first Tuesday finish since 1980, Curtis (20-under 264) comported himself with the same understated class he exhibited all week after retrieving his ball from the cup and shaking hands with playing partners Steve Stricker (269) and Brett Quigley (270).

Borrowing from theatrical tradition, the three players locked arms and bowed in unison to Avenel superintendent Dennis Ingram and his staff, who, clustered in the bleachers behind the green, comprised the entire gallery for the two-hole finish to which the public was not invited.

“We bowed to the superintendents because they did a wonderful job getting the course ready,” said Curtis, whose wire-to-wire effort was one stroke off the tournament scoring record and five better than a quartet of players, including pre-tournament favorite Padraig Harrington and former champions Stricker (1996) and Billy Andrade (1991). “They worked harder than we did this week. While we were in the clubhouse feeding our stomachs, they were out there doing the work.”

And a mighty task it was, given the 10-plus inches of rain which hammered the property Sunday and Monday, washing out bunkers and turning fairways and greens on the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout into marshland. Leave it to Curtis, the son of a public course greenskeeper, to acknowledge such efforts in his moment of victory.

Of course, the 29-year-old Curtis also knows a thing or two about unappreciated hard work. Curtis arrived at Avenel as the kid who stumbled onto the claret jug at the 2003 British Open championship, a presumed one-hit wonder whose uprising at Royal St. George’s was viewed more as an indictment of Sandwich than a harbinger of a promising future.

Thanks to a six-day run atop the leader board at Avenel girded by a putting stroke that saw him drop 64 of 65 putts inside of 10 feet, Curtis leaves Washington with a new level of clearance on his credentials. The Columbus, Ohio, native didn’t simply resurrect his career at Avenel and validate his British breakout, he leaves the Beltway as the United States’ most decorated twentysomething. Only one other American under 30 boasts two PGA Tour wins (Vaughn Taylor), much less a major.

“I feel about as good as I did when I won the [British] Open because of everything I’ve been through and all the hard work and everything,” said Curtis, who vaulted to 19th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings with eight weeks remaining before Tom Lehman finalizes his squad. “There, it was kind of unexpected. And here, I expected to win. It just took three years too long … This is the kind of week that does wonders for your confidence. It’s the kind of week that you can build on, because it totally erases those deep-down doubts about whether you belong.”

The tournament’s outlook isn’t nearly so optimistic. Any potential sponsors for next season’s proposed Fall Series event must have spent the entire week grimacing at the audition.

In spite of Curtis’ feel-good renaissance and the constant leader board presence of top draw Harrington, last week’s incredibly thin field was undeniably depressing. As if a field that didn’t include a single player ranked among the world’s top-20 wasn’t hurdle enough for the potentially defunct event, Mother Nature decided to pile on, crippling continuity and the weekend gate with a record-setting deluge.

That said, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem teased locals once again this week by promising massive renovations to the facility and its layout approaching $20 million. Finchem promised that those renovation plans were not contingent on locating a sponsor for next year. Takoma Park native and tour veteran Fred Funk, who was consulted on the layout alterations, gave the plans his stamp of approval.

Clearly, the PGA Tour wouldn’t invest such a hefty sum in the course if it didn’t intend to bring back it’s circuit to Washington. And if such sweeping changes are made, chances are that both a sponsor and a more attractive date in the midst of the FedEx Cup schedule can be found. Both Booz Allen Hamilton and Finchem stated as much.

Looking past the next two years of potential fall events, a possibility which tantalizes neither sponsors, nor players, nor local fans, the long-term fate of Washington’s tour stop now lies in than hands of the tour itself.

Given the tour’s legion of political friends and white-collar associates, the notion of encountering permitting problems insults credulity. So, the onus now clearly rests with Finchem and Co. to honor their word, carry out the renovations and return professional golf to the nation’s capital in a more impressive future incarnation.

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