Ever since the PGA Tour announced last week plans to move the Booz Allen Classic from its regular spot in June to October beginning in 2007, there has been speculation that the tournament could lose its title sponsorship when the current contract runs out after this year's event.
Steve Lesnick, chairman and chief executive officer of Kemper Sports, which has run the tournament for more than 30 years, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he wasn't sure which direction the tournament would take if the Washington-area consulting firm pulled its financial commitment after only three years.
Lesnick and others, including Booz Allen & Hamilton chairman and CEO Ralph Shrader, were caught by surprise by the PGA Tour's decision, which is believed to be partly based on the fact that the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in Potomac, which has hosted the event since 1987, is not a favorite stop among the players.
"Nothing would surprise me anymore. I can't guarantee anything," Lesnick said. "The tour would like to have an event in Washington in the fall for whatever their reasons are. Knowing Booz Allen and knowing that it's a local company and knowing that at least until now it's been a fairly positive experience for them, we're hopeful that they will remain in the picture."
If Booz Allen pulled out, Lesnik said there "was far better than a 50-50 chance" that another company would sponsor the tournament. Lesnick said there was also the possibility, however unlikely, of the event moving to another venue outside the Washington area.
Shrader, who was not available for comment yesterday, said in a statement to shareholders and employees in the Washington, D.C., area yesterday that the tour's announcement came at a time when he and tour officials have been in negotiations regarding his company's future involvement in the event.
"The Tour did not share this information with us until just prior to public release on Friday morning, so both the content and timing were a surprise," Shrader said. "We have been in negotiations with the Tour on enhancing the Washington-area tournament and extending our sponsorship, so it was very disappointing to learn that they plan to move the tournament to the fall."
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was not available for comment yesterday.
This year's event will be played June 22-25, the week after the U.S. Open is held at Winged Foot and one that typically many of the top players take off. Aside from defending champion Sergio Garcia, former champion Adam Scott and local favorite Fred Funk, it seems unlikely for the tournament to draw many big names.
One possibility is 17-year-old Michelle Wie.
Given Wie's desire to play in PGA Tour events - she missed the cut at last week's Sony Open in Hawaii - and that she will be on the East Coast for both the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace two weeks before the Booz Allen and at the U.S. Women's Open in Newport, R.I., the week after, Wie could be available to play at Avenel.
Asked if the Booz Allen Classic plans to extend a sponsor's exemption to Wie, who turned professional in the fall, Lesnick said: "To the best of my knowledge, if we haven't already, we certainly intend to. We've had discussions in the past and we've had indications in the past that she would play in our tournament at some point in the near future."
As difficult as it has been for the Booz Allen Classic to draw top names in the past, attracting big names to a tournament after the Tour Championship would be virtually impossible. Last year's event, the week before the Open, had a star-studded field that included Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. That's because it was scheduled for Congressional Country Club while Avenel was supposed to be under renovation.
That renovation won't begin until after this year's event concludes at Avenel. There have been reports that the tour would invest as much as $25 million to rebuild the course, the clubhouse and practice facility. Some remain skeptical that the tour plans on spending that much and say that pushing the tournament to the fall means that less of a financial commitment is necessary because the former Kemper Open would become a second-tier event.
The tour's stance is that the events held in the fall are not irrelevant.
"I've heard that opinion expressed and read it; I don't think we view the tournaments that are played in the fall as secondary tournaments," said Bob Combs, the tour's senior vice president for communications and media relations. "There's plenty of evidence that a fall event, given an effective management structure, given strong sponsorship, given continuity of dates, in the right market, can do extremely well."
Combs said that other events in football-dominated markets have succeeded.
"Our Tampa event in the fall in Florida and our Valero, Texas, event in San Antonio - two of the most rabid football states in the country, if not the two most rabid - those events have had significant crowds, have had significant hospitality, have had good playing fields and, in the case of Valero, generated more than $5 million for charity," Combs said.
Asked if the Booz Allen tournament was moved because of the questions surrounding Avenel's reputation among the players for being tricked-up and not in terrific shape, Combs said: "I would not point to that as a primary reason simply because regardless of when an event would be played at Avenel, we are going to proceed with improvements."