Why Tiger and His Tournament Are Not Entirely Welcome at Congressional

The PGA tour event hosted by the golf legend is viewed as a nuisance by some members of the private club.
Congressional Country Club. Photograph by Flickr user Keith Allison.
Congressional Country Club. Photograph by Flickr user Keith Allison.

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.”

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