Tiger Woods tried to soften the blow to the greater D.C. area on Wednesday, giving the media -- and by proxy, the golf fans of the region -- the gentle letdown as to why the nation's capital won't have a PGA Tour event next year and beyond.
This is almost certainly the final National in the region, with Quicken Loans offering up to become title sponsor for a fifth and final year as a condition of the PGA Tour granting their desire to host a new event in their home city of Detroit.
While the new Detroit tournament's date still isn't public information, it could turn out to be a direct swap with the late June/early July date which has been such an obstacle to the National having a great field outside the tournament host, when he's been able to play, and Rickie Fowler, who has been contractually strongly suggested to play since Quicken Loans has put its name on the tournament.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be when the National was formed quickly in 2007. The tournament was made official on March 7. Congressional Country Club was announced as host April 6, and balls were in the air of the inaugural edition at Congressional exactly 90 days later.
The tournament was to be Woods' event, ushering in his era as tournament host in the same way Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer did. Woods' National was to be centered on the work of his Tiger Woods (now TGR) Foundation and celebrate the service and sacrifice of the nation's military.
"We hope to make the AT&T National a great tradition in this community and look forward to a wonderful partnership with AT&T and the PGA Tour," Woods said at the time. "I'm thrilled the AT&T National is helping facilitate my Foundation's East Coast expansion. We plan to make a lasting impact in this community — both on and off the course."
Eleven years later, the tournament concludes on Sunday.
So what went wrong?
Ironically, the biggest problem with the tournament was Tiger Woods. He was the primary draw of the tournament, and he was ostensibly obligated to play it. However, he couldn't in 2008 following blowing out his knee en route to a 14th major title at Torrey Pines. In 2010 and 2011, he didn't play, first because of scandal, then due to injury. The tournament wasn't even in D.C. anyhow, as Congressional set out on an ill-fated renovation project to prepare for the '11 US Open, which turned out to be a disaster for the club's reputation as a viable major championship host. Even Woods winning after a pop-up hurricane -- the derecho -- in 2012 wasn't enough.
Woods committed to the 2014 event, rushing his return from back his first microdiscectomy to please a new sponsor and show appreciation to Congressional for the support among a deeply divided membership. He missed the cut. Then he didn't play in 2016 or 2017 while he was still unsure if he'd ever play golf again, much less compete on the PGA Tour.
After 2013, AT&T took its sponsorship dollars elsewhere, moving to the Byron Nelson tournament in its hometown of Dallas. Quicken Loans came in, bringing Fowler with them, at a time when the future of the tournament started to fray. Congressional didn't want to give up their club for a prime week in the summer, so they agreed to host in even-numbered years through 2020. That meant finding suitable courses for odd-numbered years. Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., was nice, but the commute was brutal for crowds. TPC Potomac, which was slated to host in 2016, has been serviceable and able to rehabilitate its reputation in golf circles, but it has the unfortunate geographic location of being right next to Congressional. The comparison is stark.
During the 2017 playing, the event's fate became clear when there was no press conference to announce Quicken Loans' extension as title sponsor. No new sponsor was on the horizon. Tournament officials became concerned the tournament's lame-duck status would mar the week. It did.
Other than the tournament's conceptual reliance on Woods as an actively playing draw and a threat to win, the National has suffered from a bad date. While Independence Day made sense to celebrate the nation's military servicemen and women, it was a horrible date on the schedule. The National and the Greenbrier have both learned this lesson the hard way, with the latter expected to move to the fall portion of the PGA Tour's wraparound schedule rather than continue futilely to muster exciting fields. Good luck, Detroit and Minneapolis, the two new cities welcoming the PGA Tour in 2019.
However, Woods chose to lean in with the media on the economic reality facing the PGA Tour: It is getting increasingly difficult to find new title sponsors.
The Houston Open almost died after 72 years after losing Shell as title sponsor following 25 years. It took Houston Astros owner Jim Crane's 11th-hour end-around on the Houston Golf Association to save the tournament, scrambling the local golf scene's power structure just to keep a long-running PGA Tour stop somewhere -- anywhere -- on the docket.d
Upstate, Colonial was saved first by an amalgamation of Ft. Worth-area companies to step in when Dean and DeLuca defaulted without consequence in the third year of their deal. Then the PGA Tour leaned on long-time partner Charles Schwab to become the long-term title sponsor.
Quicken Loans will be the Detroit sponsor, and they've been on board for five years now. The new event in Minneapolis has been a stalwart PGA Tour Champions event, so 3M is used to cutting that annual check.
Woods, his TGR Live and the PGA Tour have been unable to identify someone who has already bought in to expand their commitment or shift their dollars to the D.C. market. A newbie sponsor didn't bite.
"The support [from fans] has been fantastic," Woods said Tuesday. "We just haven't gotten the sponsorship dollars. This is a tough climate right now, and to ask a company for $7, $8, $9 million, it's tough."
When Woods has played, the fans have showed up. When he hasn't, the support hasn't been as strong. That's the nature of a golf tournament played on a holiday weekend in a town filled with imports who flee in the summer.
Look, Detroit deserves a PGA Tour event, too, and they were on this end of things in 2009. That week at the end of July, Woods capped off the long-running Buick Open at Warwick Hills with a win over an otherwise weak field. For his three-shot win over Greg Chalmers, John Senden and Roland Thatcher, Woods took away 36 Official World Golf Ranking points.
This week, the National concludes with a field worthy of meriting 34 first-place OWGR points. It is the weakest field of the season.
The PGA Tour has always had rough patches on the schedule. They're unavoidable, even more so now when the best players can formulate a season where they rarely play for less than $8.9 million. With the four majors, The Players, the four World Golf Championship events and the FedEx Cup playoffs, a top-50 player really only needs another handful of tournaments to make their year. Add in some local flavor or a course they like here and there, and that's it. Even with the Tour's efforts to encourage and mandate players to add new events to their schedules, there are only so many needle-puffing players to go around.
There's no reason for the PGA Tour to take weeks off, not so long as there are companies willing to cut checks to have their name on an event and what comes with that. Players outside the top 50 or 100 in the world need to make a living, too. However, the marketplace for top-tier events has become too crowded, and even Tiger Woods hasn't been enough to salvage what seemed in 2007 to be a slam dunk.