Jailed Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff got famous for jetting lawmakers and staff to Scotland to golf the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Closer to home, he swung the sticks at a considerably less glamorous spot. The Country Club at Woodmore, in Prince George’s County, Md., is about as no-frills as a country club can get: Until 2002, its clubhouse was simply a trailer near the first tee.
But in recent years, it has attracted a fiercely loyal, and growing, following among a younger generation of Beltway political professionals. Call it the best-kept secret on K Street.
“It’s the poor man’s Congressional,” joked John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide, referring to the ultra-posh Bethesda club.
What Woodmore lacks in old-world elegance it makes up in value and quality, its devotees insist. Lobbyists-golfers take the game more seriously than average weekend duffers — after all, they play during the week and call it work — so it’s no surprise a cheap, challenging course 20 minutes from Capitol Hill has proved a magnet for up-and-coming K Streeters.
The brass nameplates in the club’s recently refurbished locker room read like a who’s who of downtown power players: telecom lobbyist Lyndon Boozer; David Culver of the Distilled Spirits Council; Clark & Weinstock’s Jim Hirni; Richard Hunt of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association; Michael Hutton, former chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.); John Green of Ogilvy Government Relations; and the list goes on.
And the course is no stranger to political heavyweights. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) used to live on it — in a house facing the 5th hole, one lobbyist said. “He’s still the ‘Mayor of Woodmore’,” he said. “The last time we were out there, everyone greeted him by first name, and we were late for our tee time.”
Political operatives make up less than a third of the club’s membership, said Dave Long, Woodmore’s director of golf. But the corporate money and private tournaments they bring make them critical to the club’s growth.
Long said he has developed close personal ties to the club’s lobbyist members and tried to accommodate their particular needs.
For the past seven years, in deference to the $50 gift limit for lawmakers and staff, the course kept weekday greens fees capped at $45.
This year, after lawmakers adopted a complete gift ban as part of their broader ethics overhaul, Long changed long-standing club rules to allow guests to cover their own fees. Course managers now use a credit card machine in the clubhouse to let staffers pay for themselves when they come out as guests of lobbyist members.
Nevertheless, Long said, the chill on wining and dining of Congressional types has wafted east to the course: Rounds are down 10 percent to 15 percent this year, in part because of a drop-off in weekday play by staffers and lobbyists.
Stuart Roy, a former spokesman for then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said he has been playing the course as a guest since he worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2000. He joined last spring. “It’s one of the best courses in the D.C. region, but it’s affordable because they put the money into the course” instead of luxe amenities, he said.
Mike Johnson, a lobbyist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, called it “raw golf.”
But in recent years, as its young K Street members have grown up, and grown rich, Woodmore itself has started transforming into a more established club. Since 2002, initiation fees have jumped twice, from $9,000 then to $21,000 now. Last year, the club upgraded the course’s fairway grass, refinished its bunkers, doubled the size of the driving range and overhauled the 18th hole, Long said.
This spring, it hosted its first national tour event — the Melwood Prince George’s County Open — drawing 30,000 fans.
And what of the club’s most infamous member? Long is mum on Abramoff’s membership status. What he will say is that the disgraced lobbyist “played a lot of golf. We saw him on a regular basis.”
Indeed, records from the Abramoff investigation indicate he took full advantage of his home course, using it to host officials he also feted in Scotland. In an e-mail to David Safavian, a Scotland co-traveler and former Bush administration official convicted for his role in the scandal, Abramoff asked, “Want to see the new clubhouse at Woodmore?”
And Abramoff treated former House aide Mark Zachares to multiple free rounds of golf there, a fact the Justice Department used this spring to help extract a guilty plea from Zachares on a conspiracy charge.
The public disclosure of those episodes closed the door on that era of high-flying K Street excess. But Woodmore’s lobbyist members say golf still plays a critical role in Beltway politics. “It’s a sport where you have to call your own penalties,” Johnson said. “So it’s a great way to find out who somebody really is.”