It’s Tiger tournament week in Washington
But for how much longer? The once vital PGA Tour event has become an afterthought.
Life was pretty good for the Washington, D.C. golf fan in 2007. The city was selected to host the Tiger Woods Foundation’s AT&T National. Not Florida, where Woods lives. Not Northern California, where he grew up and went to college at Stanford, but D.C. Congressional Country Club, which promotes itself as being the elite course in the area, threw its arms open to host.
That was then. The Quicken Loans National is now.
This field for this year’s tournament - which will kick-off Thursday morning at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm- is incredibly weak. Adam Scott is on the European Tour, Jason Day too. Jordan Spieth is taking this week off after his big win at the Travelers. Rory McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, is resting. No Dustin Johnson. Phil Mickelson, the second biggest draw on tour after Woods, has never participated.
The biggest names might be Rickie Fowler and Bill Haas, who won the 2011 FedEx Cup and at Congressional in 2013. Do either count as a “big draw?” With more players departing for the European Tour to prepare for next month’s Open Championship, late June has become a soft spot on the schedule that it wasn’t even few years ago, much less when this tournament was created a decade ago.
The Quicken Loans, or “The Tiger Tournament,” as it was called on radio yesterday, was a tremendous success at its inception. When the week was suddenly vacated on the schedule, Woods used his golf and corporate cache to create the event seemingly overnight. He has long had an admiration for the military; training with SEALs in Florida and directing charitable funds from his foundation to military veterans. So a tournament benefiting military families and underprivileged children with his star power was a slam-dunk for everyone.
Congressional’s Blue Course, regarded as the best 18 holes at the premiere club in the area, was selected to host. Woods won twice, Justin Rose in 2010, and McIlroy in 2011 while the tournament was in Pennsylvania (PGA Tour rules stipulate a course cannot host more than one event in a season).
Woods’ draw turned into absence. In 2013, the AT&T failed to bring the gate that it did in previous years, likely because Woods announced he wouldn’t play with an injury just a week before. He failed to make the cut in 2014 and finished tied for 18th in 2015. Normally, Woods is on hand to present the trophy to the winner on Sunday, which he skipped in 2014. He is not expected to appear this week after entering treatment for his self-professed prescription drug abuse problem in June.
The D.C. area is golf-rich, there are plenty of private and public courses and more players than tee-times, but it hasn’t been insulated from declining interest in the game that has coincided with Woods’ diminished play and presence on tour. The members who voted overwhelmingly in favor of having the tournament at Congressional in 2007 barely cleared enough votes to keep it when the issue was taken up again in 2013. The plan to rotate host sites for the tournament was a compromise on behalf of the foundation to maintain support for having it at the Blue Course at least every other year.
How Avenel is received this week and what that means for the future remains is speculative. Despite undergoing a major redesign in 2008, Davis Love III told golf writer and D.C. resident John Feinstein that “Avenel is not a bad course until you have to drive past Congressional.”
It’s easy to host The Tiger Tournament when he is good and interest in the sport is robust. But after a few hiccups at the U.S. Open in recent years and Woods’ two-year saga and decline, the weeks bookending the tournament necessary for set-up and tear-down become much more of a nuisance.
Fresh off Woods’ second win at Congressional in 2012, it was considered, for a brief moment, to transform Hains Point, one of D.C.’s three public courses, into a championship-style course and clubhouse. Pinehurst №2 of the District, one could assume. Dare it even be suggested today, when the Quicken Loans isn’t the draw it was a few years ago and support for publicly financed sports venues is low enough to cause teams to leave their cities in search of new stadiums.
It sounds around D.C. as if this is the tournament’s last gasp. Quicken Loans took over as title sponsor in March 2014 after AT&T stepped away despite being contracted for that year’s tournament. The PGA Tour views D.C. as a critical golf hotbed, but they will ask Congressional’s membership to decide what the tournament will be worth in 2021 and beyond, long before anyone really knows the answer to that question.
If the tournament leaves D.C., that cannot mean well for the status of the game. A tournament benefiting underprivileged children, as the Tiger Woods Foundation does, is highly salient and a worthwhile cause. Billy Hurley III, a Northern Virginia native and Naval Academy graduate, won for the first time on tour at last year’s event. Congressional, the most prestigious club in D.C., is what a host course would look like if you drew one up. There are, or were at one point, a host of sponsors lined up.
That mix should have been perfect for any tournament and a sign of good things to come. But there has been little buzz in the weeks leading up to this year’s event. With golf experiencing a dip in interest around the country, the tour should be asking themselves, “if it cannot work here, where can it?”