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Last week's 2006 version of the PGA Tour stop outside Washington, D.C., the Booz Allen Classic, will be remembered more for its great irony than for the great iron play of Ben Curtis, who held a huge lead going into the last hole of the final round, which because of rain was scheduled to be concluded on Tuesday. The tournament formerly known as the Kemper Open had been held in Charlotte from 1969 until 1980, when Tour commissioner Deane Beman moved the event to his home turf (the D.C. area) and, seven years later, to his pet project, the Tour-owned Tournament Players Club at Avenel in Potomac, Md. � Twenty-six years later the circle is complete. Now the Tour is at best downgrading and at worst abandoning the nation's capital, offering only a post-- FedEx Cup October spot on the 2007 schedule, a date deemed unacceptable by sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton. And while the players continue to vote on Avenel by taking the week off, Charlotte's four-year-old Wachovia Championship, played in prime time in May on a classic course ( Quail Hollow) loved by the players, has become the gold standard for Tour events.
The thought of such a Mongolian Reversal, as Fred Couples might say, befuddles the players. "We own this place, and we're not coming back? I mean, it's our course," says 1991 Kemper champ Billy Andrade. "The reality really stinks."
Hall of Famer Tom Kite, who won the first Kemper at Avenel, in 1987, but missed the cut last week, says, "It's a travesty. It doesn't make sense."
The Washington Post set the tone for the '06 Booz Allen in its tournament preview, which featured a tombstone bearing the words r.i.p. golf in d.c. Then on Friday, after Tour commissioner Tim Finchem failed to show for a Wednesday press conference due to bad weather in Columbus, Ohio, and instead fielded questions by phone, Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, "What's the matter, Tim? Didn't they have flights from Columbus to Washington [on Thursday] morning? Finchem doesn't want to face the music here. He just wants to take our money--more than a quarter of a century of it--and run to Memphis," the headquarters of Federal Express, the sponsor of the FedEx Cup series.
There was nothing fond about Avenel's potential farewell. For starters, the tournament was stuck with an extremely weak field after Sergio Garc�a and Adam Scott, the last two Booz Allen champions, withdrew. Nothing bespoke the players' lack of enthusiasm for Avenel more than this stat: Seven of the last nine winners failed to show. That's almost unimaginable because Tour players religiously return to the sites where they've had success. Even worse, the field boasted only one player among the top 30 on the money list--if you guessed No. 13 Brett Wetterich, you're the winner--and no one from the top 20 in the World Ranking. (No. 23 Padraig Harrington was the highest-ranked player in attendance.)
What went wrong in D.C.? Sponsorship wasn't the problem. Booz Allen Hamilton simply wanted to have a world-class tournament, and according to Ralph Shrader, the chairman and CEO of the management consulting company, "The two things I always said we had to have were a venue and a date." The Tour's promise to provide both was the reason Booz Allen took over from FBR Capital in 2004, but as things turned out, the Tour provided neither.
While being wooed by the Tour, Shrader was shown what he calls "exciting" plans for an imminent $25 million renovation of Avenel. The tournament would have to be moved for a year during construction, and favors were called in so that in 2005 the Booz Allen could be played at nearby Congressional Country Club, which has hosted two U.S. Opens. Last year's Classic, played the week before the Open and won by Garc�a, was a huge success, but in the meantime not a teaspoon of dirt was turned at Avenel. Finchem blamed delays in getting the needed permits due to Avenel's environmentally sensitive wetland areas, an inexcusable planning lapse if true.
"We knew the reputation of Avenel, and our rationale was that even though we knew it would be a bad date the week after the Open in 2006, we'd have a new course," says Shrader. "We thought that could be the beginning of a new era and would have a certain panache that would perhaps attract a few additional players."
When no renovation work took place, Shrader was left in an awkward position. The one-year switch to Congressional had served no purpose. "I was approached by media who asked, 'Isn't that a broken promise?'" Shrader says. "What could I say? We moved because we expected something would be done."