Coming back to Bellerive revives memories of 9/11

ST. LOUIS -- This is not a place associated with big-time golf, despite its best efforts. The Gateway City gets a rare chance to shine this week, although St. Louis is not expected to get much help from Mother Nature.

That's typical when it comes to the PGA Tour and this area. You might say a dark cloud hovers, both literally and figuratively. The remnants of Hurricane Gustav mean a forecast for a 100 percent chance of rain when the BMW Championship begins Thursday at Bellerive Country Club -- a place that could use a break when it comes to good news.

Seven years ago, almost to the week, many of the players who are at Bellerive for the third leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs were here for a World Golf Championship event, the American Express Championship.

St. Louis was getting a major golf event for the first time since the 1992 PGA Championship was contested on the venue. Tiger Woods was making his first appearance, and the excitement was high.

Then the world changed.

"It's one of those days you'll remember for the rest of your life, where you were,'' Mike Weir said of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C. "Actually, Tiger and I were playing a practice round early in the morning, and Commissioner [Tim] Finchem drove out in a cart and told us what was going on. And from there, everybody was just glued to the TV to see what was going on. … It is still pretty vivid in my mind.''

"Obviously, you remember what happened,'' said Sergio Garcia, "because this is where you were at that point in time.''

The World Golf Championships were in their fourth year, and the American Express tournament moved locations. It was a tournament for the top 50 players in the world and money leaders from six tours, and was to be played just a few weeks before the Ryder Cup. Now it is known as the CA Championship and is played at Doral in Florida every year.

Two-thirds of the field made it to St. Louis. The attacks occurred on a Tuesday morning, when many players were still en route via their planes when all air traffic across the country was grounded. Phil Mickelson's plane had to land in Austin, Texas, after a visit to Houston. Jesper Parnevik was in New York at the time of the attacks. Others were already practicing.

And nobody knew what to do.

After another day went by, and as a nation tried to come to grips with the terrible tragedy, PGA Tour officials decided to cancel the tournament and its other events to be played that weekend. It wasn't rescheduled. It was the first time that had happened on the PGA Tour since 1949, when rain forced cancellation of the Colonial.

Other than the 2004 U.S. Senior Open -- which was plagued by rain -- no other major golf event had been in St. Louis until now.

"The players were so excited about being here,'' Finchem said. "I've never seen them so excited about being on a golf course, I don't think. Last year, when I was going over this year's schedule with Tiger, he remarked how excited he was early in that week and how much he was looking forward to getting back here. So it's unfortunate that twice he's not able to be playing.''

Woods has often told the story about how -- with no flights allowed -- he drove by himself back to Florida. Weir said that he, Dean Wilson and Mark Calcavecchia were allowed to take tournament courtesy cars. "We all kind of carpooled,'' Weir said. "I was going to Salt Lake City, Dean was going to Vegas and Calc was going all the way to Phoenix.

"So we kind of all drove in a line so we could pull over and get some lunch, and make our way home and get with the families.''

Many of the international players could do nothing but hang around.

"We waited until Friday when they opened up air space, and somehow, someone chartered a 757 that all the Europeans took to London,'' Australia's Adam Scott said. "We got to cool our heels in St. Louis for a few days.''

Among those who would have participated that week who are back from the BMW are Padraig Harrington, Scott Verplank, Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Scott, Stewart Cink, Wilson, Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk, Kevin Sutherland, Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Garcia, Weir, Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby.

The BMW Championship is a history-filled event that used to be called the Western Open. For a time, the tournament had major-like status and was moved around the country until it settled in the Chicago area in the 1960s. Since 1990, it has been played at Cog Hill Country Club, where Woods won the title last year.

But the PGA Tour decided to move it to St. Louis for this year (Cog Hill is being refurbished) and 2012 (when the Ryder Cup is in the Windy City). The field has the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup points standings, with Woods absent due to his season-ending knee surgery. The top 30 will advance to the Tour Championship in three weeks in Atlanta, and by then St. Louis will be a distant memory, the tour's future here unknown.

"As much as Bellerive is a lovely golf course in St. Louis, I will always remember September 11th and always associate it with here,'' Harrington said. "It does bring a lot of emotions to all the players that you can never really separate both of them in our eyes."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.