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Avenel's Ascension

From second rate to top tier, Avenel is now TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm and all dressed up,
but, perhaps, with nowhere to go – even after praise from the Tour pros.

Inside the Beltway, $25 million isn’t enough to hold an appropriations hearing about building a popsicle stand. Outside the Beltway – even if by just a couple of miles – it’s enough to turn a golf course from an afterthought in the hierarchy of Washington, D.C.-area clubs to worthy of hosting a U.S. Open.

When the PGA Tour sold off significant assets from its network of courses to fund the makeover of TPC at Avenel, it did so with the intent of elevating the experience and impressing the greatest players in the world. Its mission was to take a course that – despite hosting the PGA Tour’s Kemper Open and its successors for almost two decades – had little going for it and turn the layout into a world-class venue. It might have seemed like an order taller than asking an amateur to win The Masters, but naysayers aside, the rebranded TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm has become everything the original underachieving incarnation of the club was supposed to be.

We all still call the place simply Avenel, disregarding its fancied-up moniker, but members know TPC Potomac is no TPC at Avenel.

The Tour’s investment, and another half-million or so each year since it reopened to make continual tweaks, not only elevated the course to PGA Tour quality, but included renovations to the clubhouse and a complete upgrade of everything from the locker room to the dining room. Now, an invitation to Avenel gets the same respect – and maybe more – as other golf-only clubs like Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Caves Valley and Kinloch.

“The truth of the matter is the place from both a golf and social standpoint is light years ahead of what it once was,” says a member who has been there since Day One.

The story of such a remarkable turnaround for a suburban golf club requires some background.
From 1980 to ’86, Congressional Country Club was the site of the Kemper Open, a tournament with a somewhat storied history that included winners such as Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Tom Weiskopf and Raymond Floyd. Congressional became interested in attracting major tournaments (it would eventually host the U.S. Open in 1997 and 2011), and told the Kemper Open to find a new home.

The PGA Tour used the opportunity to build its own stadium-type venue at Avenel, essentially across Persimmon Tree Road from Congressional.

The Kemper Open moved to Avenel in 1987, although the course wasn’t quite ready to open, much less hold a PGA Tour event. The rain-soaked inaugural tournament left pros with few kind words for the swampy new venue. They would have the next 18 years to change their minds, but the course never endeared itself to the top Tour players and they generally stayed away, leaving the event with winners like Morris Hatalsky, Tom Byrum and Tom Scherrer.
General manager Michael Sullivan knew the redo that took almost two years was worthy of high praise, but “saying that ourselves and us beating our chest about it” probably wouldn’t convince anyone. The long-awaited final verdict would be what the Tour pros said about the new Avenel.

After an 11-year absence, the Tour returned this summer and a new generation of players couldn’t say enough good things about a place their predecessors 30 years ago hardly had a favorable word for. Avenel went from Greg Norman saying it should be blown up in 1987 to Justin Thomas saying it could “100 percent host a U.S. Open here starting tomorrow.”

Almost every player in this year’s field was too young to remember the original layout. For Avenel, that was a blessing. Without the backdrop of complaints from Norman and his contemporaries, players came in with a clean slate, and the effusive praise they lavished on the place was as different from 1987’s opening-year comments as the ninth hole from old Avenel was to new.

For the PGA Tour and the USGA to play nice and actually host a U.S. Open at Avenel is highly unlikely, but players likened the challenge of Avenel to that type of setting. Rickie Fowler said for anyone to get to double-digits under par would take a major-winning effort. And no one got there. “It does have the feel of a little bit more than just a normal Tour event as far as what the difficulty level is out there,” he said.

“There are no low scores here,” said 2016 champion Billy Hurley, who finished T63 with four over-par rounds. “There are no low scores out here.” A few players managed 5-under 65s as the low round of the week, but there were only eight bogey-free rounds among the 338 tournament rounds played.

The players’ praise is the stamp of approval members and everyone involved at Avenel was looking for. And the quality of the course, clubhouse and practice facilities at the new Avenel make it a little easier for the players to drive by Congressional – which has now hosted three U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship – on their way to their tee time.

“We’ve always known it’s a championship course, particularly when you get the agronomy dialed up, which is what you need to do with a Tour event with firmness and green speeds and rough heights,” says Sullivan. “In my mind, no doubt it would be a tough test for the guys.”

Unfortunately for Avenel, the timing couldn’t be worse. The reputation of the old course lingered, and it took years to convince Tiger Woods and Quicken Loans to give it another chance. The course performed spectacularly, so now Avenel has the stadium golf venue worthy of hosting a big-time PGA Tour event, but soon there may be no event to host.

The Quicken Loans returns to Congressional next year and then is contracted to be played somewhere in the Washington area in 2019 – quite possibly a return to Avenel – before going back to Congressional for the last year of the current contract. After that the event’s future is murky at best.

Avenel’s remarkable turn-around has players sounding like they’d be anxious to play there every year, and with Congressional back on the path to attracting majors and no longer interested in holding a PGA Tour event, there would appear to be an opening.

But whether Quicken Loans has the appetite to continue its sponsorship beyond 2020 is unclear. Would QL or any global company that might potentially step in as the title sponsor want to pin its brand with the injured and non-playing Tiger Woods, whose off-course problems seem to override the fact that he is one of the greatest players ever? If QL does continue, they have already floated the trial balloon of moving the tournament to Detroit, site of its corporate headquarters.

And, of course, the great unanswered question remains how much interest TW himself has in continuing the event, considering all he is going through and his dislike or unwillingness to do the hostly things that make Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and the Arnold Palmer Invitational so popular among the players.

And then there’s the PGA Tour scheduling change announced a few weeks ago. The Players Championship moves back to March and the PGA Championship to May, creating a five-month stretch of professional golf’s marquee events and moving the stretch run for the Fed Ex Cup earlier to keep it from conflicting with the NFL. In that March-to-July time frame are other high-level events like the Memorial, two World Golf Championship events, the RBC Heritage, the AT&T Byron Nelson, and the Canadian Open, which leaves a lot of the other tournaments competing for a few remaining dates.

Regardless of what happens with professional golf at Avenel and in the Washington, D.C., area, the new Avenel is unquestionably superior to the old, whether you’re a Tour player or a member. The original Avenel had 19 membership categories, 850 golf members and did 35,000 rounds a year, many of them unaccompanied corporate guests. The new, more member-centric Avenel has three categories, 670 members and plays 22,000 rounds. The old Avenel tried to be something for everyone, but the new Avenel has established its identity as a top-level private golf club.

Certainly one element that continues to draw members to Avenel is the reciprocity with other TPC network courses. But now the club is more likely to attract members who want a world-class, pure-golf experience and a social atmosphere where they’re more likely to see friends and fellow members whom they know more than corporate designees there for one day only.

Beyond the course, where designers Steve Wenzloff and Jim Hardy creatively reworked old holes and created new ones in the same footprint through the Avenel community, members enjoy light fare and cocktails in the Members’ Lounge, casual cuisine in the White Oak Grille overlooking the 18th green and fine dining with an extensive wine list in the clubhouse restaurant named 2118.

“We have elevated the entire experience,” says Sullivan.

It may have taken 30 years, but Avenel has finally found its true identity – which shines with or without a PGA Tour event. [END]