Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Tiger Woods, who revolutionized golf when he came onto the scene more than a decade ago, is about to do the same to the area’s sports scene.

In about 150 days, the world’s pre-eminent golfer has put together a world-class tournament by combining a top course, a major corporate sponsor, a star-studded field and a charitable initiative directed toward education.

In his spare time, he also played in the U.S. Open and became a father.

Play at Woods’ inaugural tournament, the AT&T National, begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. The tournament likely will be the area’s top sporting event — a status that is tied directly to Woods.

“It’s all about Tiger,” said Bob Sweeney, executive director of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, a business group dedicated to attracting events to the area. “Not only is he the world’s greatest golfer, but he has the best name and the best marketability. It’s going to have an incredible impact on the city. Washington doesn’t get these kinds of opportunities in the sports world, not since [the Redskins] were in the Super Bowl.”

Tournament officials expect 30,000 to 35,000 spectators at Congressional each day, numbers that would make the tournament one of the most well-attended events on the PGA Tour. Early projections indicate that it will exceed its revenue goal by several million dollars, with an economic impact on the area approaching $100 million.

The arrival of Woods’ tournament marks a stunning reversal of fortune for Washington golf, which was on the verge of losing its PGA Tour event after sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton dropped out last year, citing the PGA’s decision to move the tournament to late autumn.

The Booz Allen Classic and its precursors often struggled to lure a solid field — players generally disdained the host course at TPC at Avenel in Potomac — and some events were sparsely attended. Woods, who usually participates in fewer events than most players, always was noticeably absent.

The AT&T National, however, announced an invitational field that includes the world’s top four players: Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Adam Scott. Also present will be Vijay Singh, Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Weir, Davis Love III and Angel Cabrera — all winners of at least one of golf’s four major championships — making it one of the strongest fields of any non-major.

Moreover, Woods announced that his Tiger Woods Foundation will be the primary charitable beneficiary of the tournament. The foundation hopes to eventually raise more than $25 million to build a learning center in the District modeled after one constructed last year in Anaheim, Calif. A feasibility study is under way, and a decision on a location is expected to be announced by early next year.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Mr. Sweeney, who personally wrote letters to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem urging him to bring an event back to Washington. “It’s unbelievable.”

The decision by the tour to hold the event at Congressional Country Club played a role in boosting the field. The course has a stellar reputation among PGA Tour players and earned rave reviews as host of the U.S. Open in 1997.

“It’s one of the greatest golf courses here, not just in the United States but around the world,” Woods said. “You won’t have events like that come to your golf course unless you are premier caliber.”

What isn’t clear, however, is whether Congressional would have agreed to play host to the tournament without Woods’ involvement. Consider that television ratings for the final round of last month’s U.S. Open, in which Woods was in contention on Sunday, rose 37 percent over 2006, when he missed the cut. Woods’ withdrawal from last week’s Buick Championship after the birth of his daughter led to a dip in attendance of 5,000 to 10,000, tournament officials reported.

In fact, the AT&T National likely would not even exist were it not for the cancellation of the International, a Denver tournament in which Woods never played. Officials of that event said it became impossible to attract the requisite number of sponsors and spectators without Woods in the field.

“I think there’s no question that he has a profound effect,” said Jack Vickers, former director of the International. “The crowds gather, and they want to see him. He’s the guy.”

That’s not to say that a tournament can’t succeed without Woods. More than a third of the events on the PGA Tour rarely include Woods in the field, and several of those — the FBR Open, Valero Texas Open and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, for example — have seen increases in crowds and charitable contributions in recent years.

Still, it’s impossible to deny Woods’ impact on a tournament, and the golf industry in the area also expects to get a boost from the presence of the world’s best player.

“I think there’s definitely an optimism,” said Keith Miller, executive director of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which operates nine public courses. “When you have an event and he’s hosting it and playing in it, it creates incredible excitement. There are guys in the area who will say, ‘I want to go out and play.’ It creates an uptick in interest in golf.”

Industry groups report a 23 percent drop in the number of rounds played in the area since last year, adding to several years of decline. And despite a large, relatively wealthy population normally seen as supportive of the sport, the region has been rated by many experts as a below-average golf destination.

The National Golf Foundation reports there are 1,870 people in the Washington area for every golf hole, placing the region 337th out of 363 markets in access to golf. In its rankings of the best cities, Golf Digest placed the region 304 out of 330 markets, praising the quality of facilities in the area but finding a dearth of courses, particularly the public variety.

The Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corporation reported that out of the 14.1 million people who visited the city in 2005, just 170,000 said they played golf during their stay.

“In our surveys, people don’t really see us as a really great golf destination,” said Chief Executive Officer Bill Hanbury, himself an avid golfer. “This is a really great event because now we have the opportunity to show that we can be one of the premier golf venues in America.”

Course owners said they were cautiously hopeful that Woods’ presence will boost interest in the game and help the industry as a whole.

“I see this as a really exciting start to a new chapter in the D.C. metro area’s golf story,” said Charlie Birney, general partner of Atlantic Golf, which operates four courses in Maryland’s Anne Arundel, Queen Anne’s and Charles counties. “There is definitely an opportunity in this area to re-energize the sport.”

Woods said he has no reservations about the area’s ability to support the tournament.

“Golf-wise, the reception we got at the Presidents Cup the few times I’ve played it, it’s been unreal,” he said. “I just think this is an area that is a sports-mad area. They love their sports here. The reception we got here during the U.S. Open was one that I’ll never forget and also one of the reasons why I wanted to come back.”

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