AT&T National a step toward putting Philly back on golf map

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"This is a market we'd like to play in," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer)

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem frequently used to hear the question, "When is the tour coming back to Philadelphia?" on a regular basis, and his answers usually weren't very encouraging: no sponsor, no available golf course, no open date on the schedule.

However, now that the AT&T National has begun its two-year run at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Finchem appears a little more heartened by the possibilities of a tour event in the area, especially if the current event does as well as he thinks it will.

"Obviously we'll watch the reaction of the market," Finchem said Wednesday at a news conference. "But we have great confidence it's going to be a very successful event. We're back here next year, and after that we'll look for opportunities. But certainly this is a market we'd like to play in longer term."

The Philadelphia area last had a PGA Tour event in 2002 when the SEI Pennsylvania Classic was played at Waynesborough Country Club in nearby Paoli for the second and final time. Whitemarsh Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hill hosted a tour tournament from 1965 through 1980.

The biggest problem now, especially in a shaky economy, is finding a sponsor for tournaments. While Finchem said the tour is on track with where it is in most years trying to find or renew sponsors, he conceded it can be difficult to find a sponsor that would want to play in a specific city, such as Philadelphia.

However, with the AT&T National in town for this and next year while its original home, Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., is undergoing renovations for the 2011 U.S. Open, the buzz surrounding the event may attract sufficient sponsor interest.

"What will change because of these two years is that potential sponsors will now, in my view, look at Philadelphia," Finchem said. "It will be more top of mind when you're talking to sponsors about, we have a date opening, we're going to create a new event, you'd be a perfect sponsor.

"They're going to be more inclined to nod their head if Philadelphia is in the discussion than they would have been prior to these two years. That's about all I can tell you, but that's a positive thing if you're interested in golf in Philadelphia."

Of course, it also helps to have a PGA Tour superstar in the field. In the case of this tournament, it's Tiger Woods, whose foundation receives a share of the proceeds.

Crowds flocked Wednesday to Aronimink for the pro-am. Veteran Jim Furyk, who has local roots, said "there are a ton of people out there right now . . . it's amazing."

"You can tell there hasn't been a lot of golf in the area," Furyk said. "It's a shame. There's a lot of history here in Philadelphia, a lot of great courses. It's nice that we'll be back here for 2010 and 2011 at Aronimink, and the U.S. Open is coming in 2013 to Merion."

However, even with sponsors and available golf courses, finding a time on the schedule for a tournament in the Northeast, where the range of dates is limited to May through August, can be a challenge. Finchem said a tournament in Philadelphia would not be made "at the expense of our current tournament structure; that's not fair."

Officials are expecting close to 35,000 spectators for each of the four days of competition. And the weather forecast is favorable: warm with low humidity Thursday and Friday, a little warmer Saturday and hot and humid for the final day on the Fourth of July.

Finchem said he assumes the tournament will be "quite successful" and that would give Philadelphia a leg up on perhaps gaining a tournament in the near future.

"We're going to be really excited after this year and next year because this tournament . . . performed very well in Philadelphia," he said. "It will reconfirm that PGA Tour golf can be successful, very successful, in Philadelphia. But there has to be a date opportunity coupled with a golf course interest, and then we have something to talk to sponsorship about."

 


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494

or jjuliano@phillynews.com.