A behind-the-scenes look at the PGA Tour’s split with Westchester Country Club

September 3, 2008

The 41-year relationship between the PGA Tour and Westchester Country Club was like a good marriage gone bad. There was the innocent beginning, the complacent middle years and then, finally, when the Tour’s wandering eye led it to Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., the bitter, dish-throwing end.

Theories abound on why the Tour abandoned a once-celebrated venue, but who’s to blame depends entirely on whom you ask. The Tour says it’s Westchester’s fault because the club’s members were too demanding and out of touch, insisting that they be allowed to continue to play tennis and golf in the middle of a $7 million Tour event. The club says the divorce is the Tour’s fault because the Tour kept asking for more, even as it was courting alternate courses. Either way, this week’s Barclays will not be held at Westchester—and most insiders believe the Tour will never be back.

In a messy series of events last winter, the Tour decided to buy its way out of its contract for 2008 with Westchester and move to Ridgewood, another classic course—Westchester was designed by Walter Travis; Ridgewood by A.W. Tillinghast—with its own proud tournament pedigree. As part of the 2006 agreement to include the Barclays in the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs, the Tour had already announced that it would rotate the event to different venues, with the new Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City locked in for 2009. But the current agreement also says that the Tour still has to come back to Westchester at least one more time before 2012. In other words, this could only be a separation for the two sides. But given everything that has transpired, how could a divorce not be inevitable?

“I was a proponent of the Tour and went through two contracts with them; now I really don’t want them back under any circumstances,” says Joe Pepe, a former Westchester president and chairman. “There’s bad blood and there’s mistrust. The Tour has done everything in its power to tarnish our reputation so they could move the tournament.” (Westchester’s current president, Philip M. Halpern, said in a letter to Golf.com that he does want the Tour to return.)

How an event that began as the Westchester Classic in 1967 ended up across the Hudson River in New Jersey is a story that goes back several years, maybe even longer. Because of disappointing attendance over the last decade and an unenthusiastic playing record by the game’s star attraction — Tiger Woods has entered the Westchester Tour stop only three times, and signaled his disdain for the course by skipping the inaugural event of the FedEx Cup playoffs last August — the Tour’s championship-management division had been promoting the idea of rotating the event around the New York metropolitan area for years. The Tour’s stated motivation in originally looking at places like Ridgewood, Bethpage and even a stalled Jack Nicklaus project under the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx was to give the event more of a New York feel. But not far below the surface was discontent with Westchester, a venue that featured a charming, snug shotmaker’s course but also a high-powered membership that had little interest in turning over the facilities to the Tour when the tournament came to town. Among the membership’s longstanding agreements with the Tour was that during tournament week members could still play the adjacent South course, still play tennis on the courts that bordered the par-3 1st hole and still have access to the sports house that included the pros’ locker room and a fitness center.

The uneasy coexistence was best encapsulated by an incident at last summer’s Barclays, during which Tour player Aaron Baddeley was kicked out of the fitness center by a Westchester member who said Baddeley didn’t belong there. (Westchester’s current president, Halpern, confirmed that an “older member” mistakenly thought the room was for members only.)

“I think what happened is that the Tour and its tournaments evolved, and what was acceptable and overlooked in the 1970s and ’80s was no longer the case,” says a PGA Tour official who requested anonymity. “Every host venue has evolved or been replaced, but they simply weren’t of the mindset to evolve. You won’t find another venue on Tour where they play tennis off the 1st hole or play the other course when the tournament’s going on. I guarantee you there’s not another locker room on Tour shared with members.”

What sealed Westchester’s fate was the 2007 Barclays. The tournament had already been struck a devastating PR blow when Woods, in the wake of his win in the extreme heat at the PGA Championship in Tulsa, announced that he would be skipping the event. Along with putting PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem’s elaborate playoff system on the defensive right from the start, Woods’s no-show reinforced the notion that he had little use for a short, tight course that negated his power advantage. (That Woods chose to play Westchester in 2001 and ’03 was a reflection of his relationship with title sponsor Buick, which was replaced by Barclays in ’05). In the place of the game’s dominant player, a compelling storyline would emerge in winner Steve Stricker, but with modest galleries and player gripes about the condition of the course, the Tour’s first playoff event fell flat.

Yet having already committed to Westchester for ’08 and at least one more tournament before 2012, the Tour gave the outward impression that it was pressing on with its longtime host, albeit with an extensive list of new requests. In a Nov. 28 meeting at Westchester, Rick George, the Tour’s executive vice president of championship management, outlined to Westchester president Halpern a new wish list for the following summer that included a larger corporate village, new limitations on member play during the days leading up to the tournament, that the tennis courts be closed on the week of the tournament, and that the members’ upstairs locker room be limited to Tour pros.

Only a few months into his presidency at the 985-member club, Halpern, a successful White Plains trial attorney, expressed reservations about meeting all of what he called the Tour’s “extraordinary requests,” but that the club would at least discuss them. Privately, some Westchester members sensed that the Tour made the requests without any expectations of them being fulfilled.

Pepe, the former club president and chairman, said: “They made unreasonable demands on purpose to get an out.”

Whether or not the Tour’s requests were reasonable, Halpern said he acted in good faith to explore their feasibility, and left a voice mail on Dec. 13 for another Tour executive, Ed Moorhouse, wanting to discuss the issue further. According to Halpern, that call was never returned.

At that point, the Tour was already several months into a dialogue with Ridgewood, which had hosted a Senior PGA Championship and a U.S. Senior Open, and in 1935, a Ryder Cup. The connect-the-dots conspiracy theorist will surmise that the Tour had contacted Ridgewood about the 2008 Barclays the moment that Woods said he wouldn’t play in 2007, but Ridgewood and Tour representatives insist that the first conversations they had were limited to the possibility of Ridgewood hosting the Barclays in 2010 or ’11, and that ’08 was brought up only after Westchester’s lukewarm response to the Tour’s requests.

“We felt we had to give ourselves the option so we didn’t crash and burn,” says Peter Mele, the Barclays tournament director. “The Tour was looking to ensure it had a place to play in 2008 in case things deteriorated with Westchester to the point that the Barclays would not be played there.”

How Ridgewood as host for this summer went from the abstract to reality is clouded somewhat by a confidentiality agreement that limits what Westchester and PGA Tour officials can say about their dealings with each other. What is known is that the Tour made a presentation to Ridgewood in a meeting on Dec. 27, and that details of the presentation began to float between members of Ridgewood and Westchester in a game of country club telephone gone awry.

“At that point there was enough going around,” says Alex Khowaylo, who at that time was president of Ridgewood. “From our own members we had heard rumors that came from Westchester that said we were having the tournament, when in fact we hadn’t agreed to anything.”

The fact that the Tour was talking to Ridgewood at all was enough to irritate Halpern—to the point that the Westchester president shut off communication with the Tour. “As soon as I learned they were meeting with Ridgewood, there’s no chance I was going to pick up the phone and call them again,” Halpern says. “As soon as I heard there were negotiations with Ridgewood, they were in breach of our contract and we’re not talking anymore—my lawyer will talk to you. Frankly, I was really pissed off that I was spending my nights and my Saturdays traipsing around in the snow for these guys, and they were already making a deal with Ridgewood Country Club.”

By the new year, the Tour began edging its way out the door. While returning home from ski vacation in Colorado on Jan. 4, Halpern received a phone call in the Denver airport from Westchester Chairman Rod O’Connor, who said that the Tour had called and wanted to terminate its agreement with the club. In the formal letter from Moorhouse that followed a few days later, the reasons cited ranged from differences over the build-out to the small galleries, as well as a veiled reference to Westchester members having free rein over the club during tournament week.

In all, Moorhouse wrote, “I believe it simply is not possible to stage a tournament at the level we need to stage this event.”

The Tour proposed a $1 million termination agreement to Westchester, but Halpern made it clear that the club would hold the Tour’s feet to the fire for more than that. First came a letter to the membership spelling out the events of the previous few months, followed by a PR blitz in which the club’s recent correspondence with the Tour was leaked to the press. Along the way, Ridgewood was pulled into the fray before Khowaylo had notified his members of the club’s plans. Hence a hastily penned letter to Ridgewood members on Jan. 14 in which he acknowledged that yes, the club’s board did agree to host the ’08 tournament, but no, the deal wasn’t final.

The days that followed were a case study in damage control. Westchester, spurned, defended its reputation. The Tour backpedaled from its letter to Westchester by saying that it hadn’t come to a final decision on the ’08 Barclays. Ridgewood insisted that it hadn’t glommed onto a tournament that was still technically committed to another club. Finally, after sniping at one another directly and through the press for weeks, Westchester officials and PGA Tour executives found themselves together in Halpern’s White Plains office on Martin Luther King Day. By Halpern’s account, the possibility of litigation wasn’t so much threatened as implied.

“There were three options,” Halpern says. “One was, See you guys in August. Two was, Let’s resolve this like gentlemen. The third was, I’m going to sue you.”

The Tour came in with an offer to pay Westchester $1 million to terminate the remaining five-year agreement altogether. The Tour left agreeing to pay $1.1 million and give an additional $100,000 to the club’s charities for the right to relocate in ’08, while also agreeing to come back at least one more time before 2012. The new deal was a concession by the Tour that it had handled the matter clumsily, and with it also came an apology from Finchem to Westchester members.

Approaching this week’s Barclays, with Woods out of the picture for the remainder of the year, the Tour says ticket sales at Ridgewood have been brisk and the membership has embraced the event. The subtext seems to be that the experience with this year’s host has been everything that Westchester was not.

But every marriage has a honeymoon. As Westchester members might say, give it 41 years and then tell us if you still feel the same way.

Sam Weinman is the lead golf writer for The Journal News and LoHud.com.