Tiger Woods and the AT&T National are back in town. After a two-year sojourn to Philadelphia to accommodate the staging of the 2011 US Open at Congressional Country Club, the PGA Tour tournament and its host with the 14 major titles have returned to the vaunted Bethesda enclave. And while most Washington-area golf fans view the event as a boon to the local economy and a chance to rub elbows with the greatest golfers on earth, not everyone is happy they’re back—most notably, a large portion of Congressional’s membership.
In general, it’s hard to muster sympathy for rich country club folk, but in this case, they may have a legitimate beef—namely that the staging of the AT&T National at Congressional causes a significant disruption to the services for which these members pay a pretty penny. Essentially, the members are shut out of their own club during the heart of the summer. The two golf courses, the restaurants, the clubhouse the locker rooms, the tennis facilities, and the pool are invaded by the pro golfers (along with caddies, media, tour staff, and other sundry personnel), and are largely unavailable for a period before, during, and after the tournament.
There’s a good chance your first inclination upon hearing this news is: “So what?” Mine was, too. Having grown up going to public schools and playing in public parks, every time I think of a country club, I can’t avoid conjuring an image of Ted Knight doing Judge Smails in Caddyshack. The difference is that the fictional Bushwood Country Club would likely be a lot cheaper than the actual Congressional, and a lot easier to get into. According to various reports, the initiation fee at Congressional is $120,000 with a ten-year waiting list to get in. Assuming you’re willing to pay the freight and wait the decade, you still can’t play golf at the place for your first two years. Suddenly their complaints don’t seem so out-of-line.
“There are a lot of members here . . . obviously, you’re not going to have everyone in your corner,” Woods told me yesterday inside the club’s indoor tennis facility, which has been commandeered and turned into a massive media center. And he’s right.
When the tournament first came to Washington in 2007, then-Congressional president Stuart Long said that more than 90 percent of Congressional’s members voted in favor of it. A year later, after the inaugural tournament had been held and the level of disruption became evident, the renewal vote was far more contentious. Woods himself flew to Washington to attend the club meeting and personally lobby for the tournament’s continuation. It worked, but the vote was close. Several members who were in the room told me it was nearly 50-50.
That vote in 2008 will carry the tournament through 2014 on Congressional’s grounds, but beyond that, the event’s future at the club, and in Washington, is far from guaranteed.
Club member Henry Sams spent Tuesday observing the pros on the driving range. While Sams loves having the PGA Tour stars in such close proximity, he concedes, “There are some members who don’t enjoy being displaced from the normal things they do here at the club.”
One theory is that the level of support for Tiger and his tournament is linked to his dwindling public esteem. It bears noting that the club’s first two votes by in support of the event occurred before Woods’s 2009 infidelity scandal. It is conceivable the club might be less enthusiastic about a long-term relationship with Woods given the revelation of his less-than-sterling behavior. But the members I spoke with this week have been unwilling to make that connection. “I think some of the personal opinions of members about Woods might be in question,” says club member and Potomac native Tom Mackey, “but on the whole, he’s still a notable guy in the golfing world. People want to see him.”
Woods’s controversies aside, other prestigious private clubs have already begun spurning pro tournaments. The USGA had hoped to stage the 2015 US Open at the tony Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, but that club turned them down. Not even the $2 million fee that would have flooded Winged Foot’s coffers could sway the membership to be displaced in the midst of their too-short Northeastern golfing season.
The problem is, if Congressional closes its doors to Tiger, the tournament may not have another option in greater Washington. While there are plenty of private clubs and public golf courses here, few, if any, possess the key ingredients that make staging a pro event possible—sufficient size and facilities to accommodate such a large number players and fans, and a golf course that can sufficiently challenge and attract a world-class field.
The two most viable contenders to replace Congressional would be its neighboring course, TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia. The TPC course was the longtime host of the PGA Tour’s Kemper Open (also known, at times, as the Booz Allen Classic and the FBR Capital Open). Unfortunately, the players considered the course there substandard, and few of the sport’s elite ever entered. Consequently, the tournament endured sponsorship problems (as evidenced by the changing names above), and it died in 2007. The TPC course underwent significant renovations several years ago, and while it has been vastly improved, many believe it is still not ready for prime time.
The Robert Trent Jones Club features a majestic course, which has hosted the prestigious President’s Cup competition on four occasions, but its location, 35 miles outside of Washington, is considered too remote by some.
The AT&T National had a successful two-year run at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philly while Congressional was unavailable in 2010 and ’11. That club remains a viable option for the tournament should support at Congressional wane.
More than one person to whom I’ve communicated this dilemma has had the following message for the members of Congressional who oppose the tournament: Get over yourselves. They believe the club should willingly endure the trivial inconveniences caused by the tournament as a matter of civic responsibility on the part of a group of successful and fortunate people. Not only does the event generate prodigious revenue for local businesses, its organizers have donated funds to more than 100 local charities. As promised, the host has opened Tiger Woods Learning Centers at two DC schools and has plans for others. Hard to imagine that happening if the tournament moves out of town. As Tiger so gingerly put it yesterday, “We’ve had a significant impact because of Congressional, and we’d like to continue that. Obviously, we’re here through ’14, and we’ll see going forward.”