The nation’s capital has always deserved better from the PGA Tour

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The PGA Tour came back to town this week after a four-year absence. When – or if – it will return is an open question, with no one from the tour giving any indication it is a priority.

This is, after all, the nation’s capital. It is also a golf hotbed and a place that in the past drew huge crowds, regardless of the quality of its tournament fields. And yet, thanks to myriad mistakes and a lack of care, the next PGA Tour event scheduled for this area is the PGA Championship – in 2031.

The only reason the Wells Fargo Championship is here this week is because its regular site, Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, is hosting the Presidents Cup in the fall, and the tour – which likes to sell people on the idea that the Presidents Cup is somehow important – didn’t want two events there in the same year.

This area has traveled a long way – in the wrong direction – over the past 42 years.

When Deane Beman was the tour’s commissioner, he very much wanted an annual event played in this region. There were two reasons: Beman believed the tour should have a presence in the nation’s capital, and he grew up in the area, graduating from the University of Maryland before going on to win four times on the tour.

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Beman was the major reason the tour came to Maryland in 1980, when the Kemper Open was moved from Charlotte to the Congressional Country Club.

The fields were strong, attendance was excellent, and all was well. In fact, five of the first six winners were major champions, including Greg Norman, who won in 1984 and 1986.

But then Beman and the tour jumped the shark. Beman’s dream of building a golf course near where he had grown up, as part of the Tournament Players Network, had come true when TPC Avenel opened in 1986. A year later, the Kemper Open moved to Avenel, a decision that turned out to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Because the tour owned Avenel, there was no rent. But the course was flawed and not nearly ready for a PGA Tour event. The players’ attitude towards Avenel was best summed up by Davis Love III. “Avenel isn’t a bad golf course,” he said, “unless you have to drive past the Congressional to get here.”

The fields became worse and worse, although attendance remained terrific. Norman stopped coming after saying that Avenel’s ninth hole “should be blown up.”

When Chicago-based Kemper abandoned the event after the 2002 tournament, two local businesses stepped in to keep it alive: Friedman, Billings, Ramsey for one year, followed by Booz Allen. But in 2005, when the tour overhauled its schedule, Booz Allen was offered a date in October – meaning it wouldn’t even be part of the new FedEx Cup schedule. A fall date – in the middle of the football season and with no real incentive for top players to show up – was untenable. Booz Allen said no thanks, and the last Booz Allen Classic took place in 2006.

Appropriately, that tournament finished on a Tuesday after several days of heavy rain, with no spectators allowed on the grounds to witness the conclusion. The rainy, empty golf course was reflective of how far the tournament had fallen. The only thing it had in common with the sparkling event once hosted by Congressional was that the winner, Ben Curtis, was a major champion.

Just when it looked like the tour would depart the DC area for good, fate – and sponsorships – came to the rescue. The International, an event played outside of Denver, was also struggling with sponsorship. Believing his event was not supported enough by the PGA Tour, tournament founder Jack Vickers folded it.

By then, Tiger Woods was golf’s dominant player. He wanted his own event, a la Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Then-commissioner Tim Finchem thought it was a great idea, and the Congressional was willing to host again in return for the tour’s highest rental fee and the presence of Woods.

But the relationship between the tour, Woods and the club began to go south even before Woods’s infamous automobile crash in November 2009. At a “town hall meeting” to discuss a contract renewal in 2008, a number of members expressed concern with giving up the club for a week in midsummer when school was out, regardless of the rental fee. Finchem said the tournament sponsor, AT&T, had an event in Atlanta in May that was about to go away and it was possible the tournament might have moved earlier in the year. Atlanta went away, but the DC date was never moved to before Memorial Day.

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But the moment that more or less sealed the relationship between Woods and the membership came when someone asked Woods why the club would want to host a midsummer event. Woods looked shocked. “Why wouldn’t you want to host this event?” he responded.

For the record, I am a member at Congressional. I voted to renew the contract, and it was renewed, barely – by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

Woods’s relationship with the club began to crater after the accident. AT&T pulled out as a title sponsor in 2014 and was replaced by Quicken Loans. The last time the tournament was played at the Congressional was in 2016. A year later, after the event had moved back to a redesigned Avenel (now known as TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms), Quicken Loans informed the tour it would no longer be a title sponsor, unless its tournament was moved to its corporate home of Detroit. The tournament was played one more year at Avenel – with no title sponsor – and then disappeared.

That year, I asked new PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan if he thought there would be a tournament in Washington in 2019. “Yes, I think we’ll find a sponsor,” Monahan said. He smiled and said, “I can sell anything.”

Apparently, Monahan hasn’t been able to sell the nation’s capital to corporate America. The tour goes where the sponsorship money leads. Perhaps the polarized political climate makes the area inhospitable to corporations, which want nothing but good news and talk of their charity work during tour telecasts.

It also may be that the tour doesn’t care all that much about the void here as long as it has a full schedule. Except during the pre-Avenel years and the early Woods years – all at Congressional – the tour has treated the DC area as a Class AAA town.

Much of the problem goes back to the premature move to Avenel in 1987. Love’s line lingers on tour driving ranges. The irony is that it was Love who did the golf course’s redesign in 2008. Most who have played the rebuilt course love it.

“I think it’s terrific,” Rory McIlroy said after playing it Tuesday for the first time. “It’s hard, but it’s fair. I think playing here every year would be a good thing for the tour. ”

McIlroy is a member of the tour’s policy board. Maybe he can nudge Monahan and his sales team to push harder to find a title sponsor.

In the meantime, judging the area during a rainy weekend with a decent but unspectacular field – McIlroy is the only top-10 player taking part – would be unfair. Then again, the tour has rarely been fair to Washington.

The tour will leave town Sunday. It may not be back for a long, long time.

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