PGA goes home again

Booz Allen: The return to Congressional the week before the Open puts the tournament on familiar footing.

Booz Allen Classic

June 08, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There will be a different feel this week to the Washington, D.C., area's only PGA Tour stop.

It will seem like the old days, when the Booz Allen Classic was still called the Kemper Open and when the game's biggest names used to show up at Congressional Country Club with the same regularity as the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin.

That's because the tournament, which begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday, will be played at the venerable Bethesda club for the first time since 1986. The event was moved for this year when plans were made to renovate the TPC at Avenel in nearby Potomac.

It's also because the event, which has had a difficult time attracting the tour's big names to Avenel, will have all but one of them at Congressional for what is considered a similar set-up to next week's U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. The exception this week is considerable - Tiger Woods.

Vijay Singh, currently ranked No. 1 in the world ahead of No. 2 Woods, will share this year's marquee with third-ranked Ernie Els, who won the U.S. Open when it was played at Congressional in 1997, will share this year's marquee with No. 4 Phil Mickelson and No. 5 Retief Goosen, the reigning Open champion.

But there are still questions about next year's Booz Allen, when the tournament is expected to move back to Avenel - and beyond.

After the PGA Tour failed to secure proper zoning approvals, renovations at Avenel were pushed back until after the 2006 event. The plans for a modest improvement have expanded to a proposal for a major overhaul that could cost as much as $20 to $25 million, according to Booz Allen chairman and CEO Ralph Shrader.

Though the site for 2007 is still up in the air, Shrader is confident that his Reston-based international management and strategy consulting company will be involved after the current three-year contract runs out after 2006. But he isn't certain where the tournament will be played while Avenel is redone.

There are few, if any, venues in the vicinity of Avenel aside from Congressional that could host a PGA event. Those that have been mentioned include the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., site of this year's Presidents Cup, and the Lansdowne resort near Leesburg, Va.

"We're very grateful that Congressional has allowed the tournament to be played at its site this year, but to think about Congressional as a permanent stop is not in the cards," said Shrader. "That's a decision that's already been made. This is a temporary condition."

Shrader believes that the commitment from the tour is just as strong to raise the profile of what has been a second-tier event at best for most of its run at Avenel. To accomplish that, Avenel would likely have to meet the fate once suggested by longtime critic Greg Norman about the par-3 ninth hole.

Asked years back what could be done to improve No. 9, Norman said sardonically: "Blow it up."

Fred Funk doesn't think that Avenel needs major renovations for the tournament to become a more attractive event. Nor does he believe that it will regularly get the field it will have this week, when 30 of the top 50 players in the world, including the 26th-ranked Funk, will be on hand as they get ready for the Open.

"It's gotten a lot better," Funk said of Avenel, where he has been a fan favorite because of his ties to the University of Maryland and a contender on a few occasions. "But it will never be a Congressional because that's the premier course in the area."

The project at Avenel would include the redesign of several holes, the renovation of all the fairways and greens, and the expansion of the clubhouse and practice facilities and the redirection of a creek that has caused extensive flooding on the back nine.

It would also likely include gaining better access to the club for fans and players alike from nearby roads.

"A major set of changes that, when accomplished and completed, I believe would have the PGA Tour professionals saying, `Wow, this is a golf course that I'd like to play,' " said Shrader. "The fans in the greater Washington, D.C., area would say that this is a really first-class venue."

Vernon Kelly, president of PGA Tour golf course properties, declined to comment on the price tag offered by Shrader, but said that the renovation would be significant because of the age of the property, the amount of work that needed to be done, as well as construction costs near the nation's capital.

Shrader seems confident that the tournament will stay at Avenel once it is rebuilt.

"From the beginning of our involvement, the PGA Tour and [commissioner] Tim Finchem has assured me that the D.C. market is a high-priority market for the tour and they want to stage a very prestigious event here in D.C.," Shrader said last month.

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