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How Tiger created his own tourney in 116 days

WP: The three men had come to announce the return of professional golf to the Washington area, and the newly christened AT&T National that would become Woods's signature event on the PGA Tour.
U.S. Open Championship - Final Round
Tiger Woods will host his first PGA Tour tournament, the AT&T National, this week at the Congressional Country Club.David Cannon / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There wasn't enough space for one more person to squeeze into the Holman Lounge at the National Press Club on March 7. Dozens of reporters and photographers and scores of others who simply wanted to say they were there jostled by the stage, where PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, AT&T chief executive Ed Whitacre and Tiger Woods sat in mahogany lounge chairs.

The three men had come to announce the return of professional golf to the Washington area, and the newly christened AT&T National that would become Woods's signature event on the PGA Tour.

As the top-ranked golfer in the world explained how this tournament was the fulfillment of a dream shared with his late father, the man in charge of executing Woods's vision listened from a folding chair in the front row.

Greg McLaughlin, a 47-year-old native of Cincinnati who is president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, needed to produce a golf tournament worthy of its creator's name, and one day, his legacy. He had nearly 20 years worth of experience as a golf tournament director, but this time was going to be different.

It usually takes a year or more to put on a PGA Tour event. McLaughlin had 116 days.

"The first concern I had was whether or not we were going to be able to execute this in four months," McLaughlin said. "That was kind of the challenge in taking the project on. Could we do it? It was a huge risk. There was Tiger's name. Suppose it's not presented properly or it's not successful? That was the risk -- embarrassment."

Tens of thousands of spectators are expected to attend the inaugural AT&T National at Congressional Country Club this week, which will feature five of the six top-ranked golfers in the world, including Woods, who has never played in a regular PGA Tour event in the Washington area, and his top rival, Phil Mickelson.

An extraordinary confluence of events delivered golf's biggest draws to Bethesda just a year after the PGA Tour dropped the Washington area from its schedule following the collapse of the Booz Allen Classic. But as McLaughlin sat at the National Press Club in March, he faced so many hurdles that it was difficult to know where to begin.

He had lined up AT&T as the title sponsor on Feb. 24 -- a crucial first step. But he still had to convince Congressional's members to host the tournament.

On top of that, there were 45 hospitality areas to construct, 200 portable toilets to order, 100,000 tickets to print, a tournament logo to design, a parking plan involving 125 shuttles and 18 satellite parking lots to coordinate, caterers to hire, generators to rent, 60,000 feet of ropes, 2,000 stakes and 5,000 feet of fencing to put into the ground. Not to mention all the licenses and permits that needed to be secured from Montgomery County.

"When I woke up the morning after the announcement, the enormity of it all hit me," McLaughlin said. "I wondered, what had I done?"

The greatest irony of McLaughlin's challenge was that, just months earlier, few believed Washington would again host a PGA Tour event -- let alone one backed by the greatest golfer alive. For the PGA Tour to return, it first had to make a controversial departure.

Goodbye, Washington
A pall loomed over the TPC at Avenel course in Potomac during the Booz Allen Classic last June. Heavy rains and thunderstorms pelted the region, forcing competitors off the course on Sunday and again on Monday. The weather made the fairways more suited for mud wrestling. Groundskeepers hoisted shovels, pumps and vacuum hoses to remove puddles that formed in the contours of the greens and to drain bunkers flooded with hip-high water.

On Tuesday morning, June 27, the rain stopped just long enough for journeyman Ben Curtis to sink a bogey putt on the 18th green to win the tournament. Not a single paying fan was on hand to watch.

The PGA Tour's annual stop in the region had survived for 27 years despite often miserable weather and a course built by the Tour specifically for an annual tournament but generally disliked by professionals. Though large crowds turned out year after year, the tournament's inopportune date often was an excuse for many of the game's best players to stay away.

In 2003, Booz Allen Hamilton chief executive Ralph Shrader, an avid golfer whose house abuts the 14th fairway of Congressional's Gold Course, signed his company on as the event's sponsor for three years. He was intent on improving its reputation.

Finchem flew to Washington to visit Shrader at the consulting firm's headquarters in McLean. For nearly two hours, they shared their visions for revitalizing the tournament, Shrader recalled. A major renovation of TPC at Avenel, which the PGA Tour owns and operates, and a more appealing spot on the schedule were the centerpieces.

Finchem hinted about wanting a long-term sponsorship deal, Shrader said. Before agreeing to anything, Shrader insisted that the tournament be assured of the week before the U.S. Open, which would entice more name golfers to attend as a tuneup for a major championship. The two continued this dialogue over the next three years.

"I felt like we were on the same page," Shrader said. Speaking in a separate interview, Finchem agreed with Shrader's characterization of the relationship.

Shrader and Finchem met for the final time at the Presidents Cup at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville in September 2005. Renovations at Avenel had not progressed beyond sketches, and nothing had been decided about the tournament's dates. The two agreed to continue talks soon.

Less than two months later, Finchem announced the creation of the FedEx Cup, a season-long points competition. The dates of some tournaments needed to be shuffled.

On Jan. 13, 2006, Shrader said, he received a phone call just past 9 a.m. at his home.

"I just wanted you give you a heads-up," Finchem told Shrader. "We're moving the Washington event to the fall."

"What?" said Shrader, stunned. The tournament was being relegated to the weakest part of the schedule. It was a virtual death sentence. Finchem made the decision public at a news conference later that morning.

Finchem said last week that he kept Booz Allen in the dark to avoid a leak of the Tour's planned schedule changes. But he also was less than generous in his assessment of the tournament's performance.

"All of this happened in the backdrop, candidly, of recognizing that the event in Washington had not performed over the years at the level we want to see a PGA Tour event perform generally, but particularly an event that we want to see perform in the nation's capital," he said. "In the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-largest market in the country, we weren't comfortable with that."

Asked for his response to Finchem's comment, Shrader said: "I felt we tried hard to earn a world-class event here in Washington. I feel that the event we had at Congressional in 2005 was a world-class event that demonstrated given a golf course and a date, we could have a world-class event here in Washington, one that the city and the people deserve. I'm happy Tiger and AT&T have come and I look forward to it being a big success."

Two months later, Booz Allen said it would not renew its sponsorship. On July 6, less than two weeks after Curtis sank his bogey putt, the PGA Tour announced it would drop Washington altogether.

The local golf world was stunned. What few realized, however, was that Woods and the PGA Tour for years had been discussing the creation of a tournament in Woods's name similar to Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Classic and Jack Nicklaus's Memorial. The only missing pieces had been an open date on the PGA Tour's calendar and a host city.

The demise of the Booz Allen Classic made Washington a potential host. Within months, the other piece would fall into place.

On Feb. 8, the longtime backer of The International in suburban Denver pulled the plug on the event after a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a sponsor. The tournament, which in previous years had been contested in August, had been switched to July 5-8 this season.

There was a hole in this year's schedule -- and, whether by design or pure serendipity, Finchem had a plan for filling it.

McLaughlin's phone rang the next morning. Finchem was on the line.

'It Was Tiger'
McLaughlin arrived at Dulles International Airport from his home in Southern California on a bitterly cold evening in March, two days before Woods's news conference. He had packed a few suitcases and about three weeks of clothes, but he knew he would effectively be living in Washington for the next four months.

Once the official announcement was out of the way, McLaughlin would be moving into a temporary office at TPC at Avenel. His goal was to set up shop at Congressional, which is about a mile from Avenel. Woods had played the U.S. Open at Congressional in 1997, finishing tied for 19th, and had let it be known it was his first -- and only -- choice for his tournament.

Before McLaughlin could proceed, however, he had to get the blessing of Congressional's membership.

Established in 1924 and located on River Road, Congressional has a membership of about 2,700. It includes some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in the Washington region and beyond who pay an initiation fee of upwards of $100,000 to join the club. One of the more influential members just happened to be an official at the PGA Tour.

Charlie Zink, the tour's co-chief operating officer and a non-resident member of Congressional, had spent the first two weeks in February gauging the interest of members and club officials in a new tournament. There was a catch, though: Zink wasn't allowed to tell anyone about the involvement of Woods. All he would tell them, according to several club members, was that the tournament would have a top-flight field and the backing of a corporate sponsor with deep pockets.

Congressional President Stuart Long and other club officials were intrigued.

"Stu and I probably went back and forth with about 20 phone calls," said Zink, a member of Congressional since 1980. "It was kind of a leap of faith on Congressional's part."

Long said: "I had to trust Charlie. He promised me that he wouldn't spin me on this."

Approval was expected, but not guaranteed, Long told McLaughlin, who nonetheless formulated a backup plan, which involved holding the tournament at Robert Trent Jones in Gainesville, if Congressional turned it down.

Congressional already had been awarded the U.S. Amateur in 2009 and the U.S. Open in 2011. While hosting a premier tournament adds to a club's prestige, it also inconveniences members. During a tournament of the magnitude of the AT&T National, the entire club -- including its two courses, swimming pool and tennis courts -- would be closed.

"We didn't promise them anything," Long said. "We thought we could give a good presentation to the membership. So we asked Greg to come and speak at the town hall meeting. Tiger would have, but I thought that would be overkill."

The meeting on the night of March 14 drew about 400 members to the ballroom in the clubhouse, which has floor-to-ceiling windows that open to a balcony that overlooks the 18th green of the Blue Course, Congressional's championship course.

McLaughlin showed two videos on a large screen. One was about the Tiger Woods Foundation's Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif. Woods has said he wants to open a second such center on the East Coast, possibly in the Washington area, and wants to use money generated from the tournament to build it. The other video was a highlight reel of Woods's career.

McLaughlin pledged $2.5 million to the club for its trouble. That's not big money by Congressional's standards, Long said, but it would help renovate the short-game practice area and improve the tennis courts.

"I called Tiger after I left to tell him that I thought it went pretty good," McLaughlin said. "He said, 'Well, how did they vote? Did we get it?' I told him there was a 21-day ballot. So we have to wait 21 more days. He said, 'Oh my God!' But things were trending in a positive way."

On April 6, the club announced that 1,204 of its 1,600 voting members had voted to approve. Just 120 voted no.

"It's all because it was Tiger," Congressional General Manager Michael Leemhuis said.

Congressional agreed to host Woods's tournament only through 2008. And because of the USGA events in 2009 and 2011, Long doesn't expect the AT&T National to return until 2012 at the earliest.

"Congressional is a big-time country club," Long said. "It does well when we have these tournaments. It shines. We're not looking for them all the time. But we like them occasionally."

He paused, then added: "Congressional is not interested in becoming a tour stop. . . . We're going to catch our breath in 2010."

McLaughlin would leave that to another day. The yes vote in his pocket, he had the go-ahead to set up operations at Congressional.

'Strain on Everyone'
McLaughlin moved his office into a squat, cinder block building that sits down a hill from the looming presence of Congressional's picturesque Spanish colonial clubhouse. The only natural light came through a small window that looked out onto a drainage pipe.

The irony wasn't lost on McLaughlin. Here he was, charged with putting on a $14 million tournament in what amounted to an auxiliary caddie shack.

With little time to scour the local job market, he had asked seven employees of the Woods foundation, many of whom had experience running golf tournaments, to move with him from California. Their responsibilities ranged from overseeing the construction of the hospitality tents, bleachers and skyboxes to coordinating the parking plan and the nearly 2,000 volunteers.

"Everyone here is married or dating or whatever, so it definitely puts a strain on your relationships," McLaughlin said. "But everyone has taken the attitude . . . that it's a total of 116 days. It's a great opportunity. So we just kind of do it."

A trim man of moderate height who slicks back his dark brown hair to cover some thinning, McLaughlin routinely wears dress slacks and a sports coat, even on days when he is outdoors in the heat. He speaks calmly and deliberately, measuring his words carefully. The scene in his makeshift office belied his appearance.

Tacked to the beige walls were dozens of documents, letters, contracts and yellow Post-it notes, each representing an unfinished piece of business. A calendar behind McLaughlin's desk had just four months -- April, May, June and July. Some days were circled. Others had notes and phone numbers scribbled on them.

There were five desks, two sofas, a refrigerator and a coffee table that was covered with course maps and schematics for the grounds. A folding table along one wall had a coffee maker, a basket of fruit and granola bars. As April stretched into May, the table also often became the place where McLaughlin and the others picked up their breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner.

The days became so long that McLaughlin asked Congressional for a guest room in the clubhouse, so he could avoid a traffic-choked trip around the Beltway from the apartment he was renting in Tysons Corner. Now, home was a one-minute walk across the parking lot and the majority of his driving was done behind the wheel of a golf cart.

"There have been a few days when I wasn't there [mentally] when I should have been there," McLaughlin said. He missed his wife and two teenage daughters. "It kind of takes its toll on you. It puts a strain on everyone, just being gone for so long."

McLaughlin has flown home eight times, most recently to attend one daughter's high school graduation.

"She's going to Georgetown" this fall, McLaughlin said. "How ironic is that?"

'Are You Behind?'
On the afternoon of May 29, McLaughlin's black sport-utility vehicle passed through the stately gates at Congressional. In the passenger seat was Tiger Woods.

Woods had flown to Washington on his private jet from his home in Orlando for a news conference, but more importantly, to get a status report on the tournament. Woods wanted to tour the reconfigured Blue Course, which has been adjusted from its standard par 72 to a more challenging par 70, as it was for the '97 Open.

"The first thing he said to me when we got here was, 'When are they going to put the tents up?' " McLaughlin said. "He goes, 'Are you behind? When are you going to start?' "

McLaughlin pulled up in front of the tournament office. It was about 1:45 p.m. and Woods was scheduled to speak to the media at 2:30, then board his jet around 4 for a flight to Columbus, Ohio, where he was to play in the Memorial later in the week.

McLaughlin and Woods headed immediately to a golf cart, hopped on and sped off. The course was busy and Woods's presence created a stir as the two weaved across fairways and ducked between greens. A foursome that was preparing to tee off stopped and stared as the cart whizzed past. Moments later, two young boys on a nearby fairway smiled and waved. McLaughlin waved back. Woods, suffering from strep throat, stared straight ahead.

The cart came to a stop on the path next to the tee box of the par-4 sixth. Woods, wearing a white golf shirt and hat, black slacks and black wraparound sunglasses, climbed off and walked up to the box.

"Which tees? The black ones?" he said, pointing at the ones farthest from the hole. "No," McLaughlin responded, "these," pointing to tees about 30 yards closer. Woods turned away without responding -- but he didn't like the answer.

"He wanted the tees at 525" yards, McLaughlin said. "I said, 'Okay, sounds good to me,' and I made a note of that [to] talk to the rules staff. Ultimately, it's [the PGA Tour's] decision. But they take input from tournaments and hosts, especially when that person is the number one player in the world."

The pair made two more stops -- first at a path overlooking the 18th green, where Woods reminisced briefly about the U.S. Open a decade ago, then to chat for a moment with groundskeepers -- before returning to the clubhouse.

"It's hard to do," Woods said, when asked about McLaughlin's task. "You don't do that with golf tournaments, especially on this scale. It doesn't happen. It takes an effort level that is unmatched and certainly [a] commitment to excellence. Everybody here . . . has been tremendous in making it all happen."

'A New Standard'
A few weeks later, McLaughlin was again on a golf cart, but this time he was with a foundation employee when he noticed a problem. The cart had barely stopped rolling before McLaughlin hopped off. As he surveyed the empty gravel foundation where the enormous welcome tent would eventually sit, a five-foot high mound of dirt caught his eye.

"When's this going to get done?" he snapped, turning to one of his employees. "I've been looking at this for months. You're not worried? Let's get someone on this today."

Like most mornings, McLaughlin was juggling phone calls, coordinating projects spread across Congressional's 580 acres, and racing from one meeting to the next. Only 20 days remained until the first player would hit his opening drive.

"Where are we going to put the players-only john?," he asked, before suggesting it go on the sixth hole. "There's more privacy over there."

Given the compressed time frame, McLaughlin wasn't able to bid out contracts for much of the infrastructure and services he needed, such as scaffolding, bleachers, portable toilets. Some of the added expense would fall to AT&T, but McLaughlin said he wanted to ensure that the National would be a "first-class" tournament.

"Coming into this, it was our goal to set a new standard," he said. "So we went to blue-chip vendors."

By last week, the grounds had finally begun to look ready. Even so, there was a stream of deliveries at McLaughlin's office and the sound of hammers and nail guns echoed throughout the course.

A $100,000 pedestrian bridge that will allow spectators to cross Bradley Boulevard was installed Thursday after being built offsite to minimize traffic disruptions. It was part of an elaborate $1 million parking plan that, McLaughlin hopes, will get players, spectators, dignitaries and volunteers to and from the course. There is minimal parking at Congressional, and the roads in the neighborhood cannot handle the increased volume of cars, so the tournament will use 125 shuttle buses to ferry fans from 18 satellite parking lots, some as far away as McLean. A similar system was used for the 1997 U.S. Open.

There were some last-minute hiccups. A plan to have a separate entrance for the military -- members of the armed forces are being allowed into the tournament free -- was nixed last week when the Pentagon said it could not provide the vehicles to get them to the gate.

McLaughlin said he won't really know how things worked out until next Sunday evening, sometime after the first winner of the AT&T National is crowned.

"The key is getting it done right in four months," he said. "But if you do it, five years from now you look back and say what a great and unbelievable thing we did."