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PGA goes home again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The tour has consulted with a number of architects, but Kelly said that the final input regarding the redesign would come from the players, with one acting as a lead designer. (Considering his work on other courses, including at Lansdowne, Norman might be a candidate, however ironic that might be.) Along with the renovation of Avenel, Shrader believes that the tournament will be able to get a regular date that is more conducive to drawing a higher-quality field, preferably one that leads into the Open.

"My discussions with the PGA Tour have focused on two major themes: the venue and the date," said Shrader. "I want a first-class event. I believe you get the first-class event by having the kind of golf course that professionals want to play, and having the tournament on a date that is favorable to this market to get the field we need and the fans the experience they need."

BOOZ ALLEN CLASSIC

Congressional Country Club

WHERE THE TOURNAMENT MIGHT BE WON

Given Fred Funk's assessment that "the whole back nine is tough," players had better pick up whatever strokes they can on the front.

The opening hole would be a good start, a straightforward par 4 without much trouble.

If they can get past the uphill 230-yard par-3 second without giving anything back, they can build some momentum on the next four holes, particularly the par-5 sixth that many weekend hackers can par without many problems.

The sixth could be the best eagle chance on the course, depending on where the pin is placed.

WHERE THE TOURNAMENT MIGHT BE LOST

Beginning with the par-5 ninth, players could begin to see their scores skyrocketing. The members play No. 10 as a par 5, but the pros will play it as a long par 4.

It's here where the tournament will take on the feel of the U.S. Open, with Nos. 13 and 14 demanding but birdieable. Based on what happened in the final round of the 1997 Open, the last two holes could be pivotal again.

The signature downhill 480-yard par-4 17th is where Colin Montgomerie blew his chance and the controversial closing hole -- a 190-yard par 3 -- is where he lost an opportunity to force a playoff against Ernie Els by playing the hole too conservatively.

BEST VIEWING HOLES

According to John Lyberger, Congressional's director of golf, the whole course sets up well for viewing because of the number of holes that are backed by hills and shaded by pine trees. The crowds are going to congregate on the hill across the water from the 17th green, where you can watch groups teeing off, as well as coming down on 17 and playing 18.

Lyberger says that the best viewing area on the course is behind the 13th green, where you can watch the players hit in, tee off on 14 and hit their approach shots at 15. It's located near the main entrance -- just off the Gold Course's fifth hole -- and the merchandise tent.

DIRECTIONS

From Baltimore: Take I-95 South to I-495 West to Exit No. 39 toward Washington-Potomac, turn left on Bradley Boulevard, continue on Oaklyn Drive to parking. Shuttle service will be provided to and from Congressional Country Club.

About the Booz Allen Classic

WHERE: Congressional Country Club, Bethesda

WHEN: Tomorrow through Sunday

TICKETS: For information, call 301-469-3737

PURSE: $5 million, with $900,000 to winner

HOLE LENGTHS AND PAR

SCHEDULE, TV COVERAGE

Day Rnd. 1st tee time TV coverage

TOMORROW 1st 7 a.m. 4-6 p.m., USA

FRIDAY 2nd 7 a.m. 4-6 p.m., USA

SATURDAY 3rd 8:30 a.m.* 3-6 p.m., chs. 2, 7

SUNDAY 4th 8:30 a.m.* 3-6 p.m., chs. 2, 7

*approximate tee time

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