If you're ever inthe area," a fan told Phil Mickelson last Friday, "I'd love to show youthe State Department." To which the world's second-ranked golfer, who wasseven over par after two rounds of the inaugural AT&T National inBethesda,¬†Md., could have replied, "Well, I'm free this weekend."¬∂ The fan, if you haven't guessed, was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whotook up golf two years ago to give herself something more vexing to think aboutthan Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Condi was one of an estimated140,000 spectators who last week roamed the wooded hills of CongressionalCountry Club, just outside the nation's capital, to celebrate Independence Dayand to honor members of the U.S. armed forces.
Oh, and a bunch ofthem were there to see and celebrate Tiger Woods.
That may soundlike too many objectives for a single golf tournament, but not in Washington,D.C., where "mission creep" is a way of life. Throw in the fact thatTiger was making his first public appearance since the birth of his daughter,Sam Alexis, and you had a golf tournament disguised as a baby shower wrapped ina national holiday.
It turned out tobe a resounding success for the PGA Tour. With its subtitle "Hosted byTiger Woods," the National was an 11th-hour replacement for theInternational, a well-run Colorado tournament that folded after 21 years due topoor television ratings and a lack of sponsors. The D.C. market was available,ironically, because of the Tour's inability to find a new title sponsor for anevent that had lasted nearly three decades despite weak fields and anundistinguished golf course, TPC Avenel.
Spotting anopportunity in an otherwise bleak situation, Woods and PGA Tour commissionerTim Finchem decided to build a new tournament in the capital around the onecommodity that any Tour event needs to prosper in the Tiger Woods era: TigerWoods. Their models were the Memorial, a classy event that Jack Nicklaus hostsevery spring in Dublin, Ohio, and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a snowbirdfavorite in Orlando that Woods won four times in a row starting in 2000. Alongwith his bankable name, Woods provided Finchem with a sponsoring charity (theTiger Woods Foundation), an experienced tournament director (TWF president GregMcLaughlin), a sentimental touchstone (Tiger's career-soldier father, Earl, whodied in 2006) and a high-concept format (a USO-style tribute to America'svolunteer warriors).
"They puttheir lives on the line for us," Woods said last week, explaining theNational's gift of 5,000 tickets a day to active-duty service members. "Theleast we can do is say thank you, come on in." If not for golf, Woodsadded, he might have followed in the footsteps of his Green Beret father."I don't know what branch, but I certainly would have wanted to get intothe special-operations community."
Glidingeffortlessly from the martial to the marital, Woods used his pretournamentpress conference to satisfy the nation's curiosity about his infant daughter,born on June 18, the day after Tiger finished second in the U.S. Open.
What was the timeline? "I flew, landed in Orlando, went straight to the hospital, and nextthing you know, we have Sam Alexis in our arms."
Why Sam? "Myfather had always called me Sam. I would ask him, 'Why don't you ever call meTiger?' He says, 'Well, you look more like a Sam.' "
How does it feel?"Well, it's something Elin and I talked about on our first night. 'How canyou love something so much that didn't exist the day before?' "
That last remark,suitable for a Hallmark greeting card, ignited the blogosphere--a few shut-insthought the golfer was addressing the subject of fetal viability--but Woodstiptoed through the rest of the week without making a partisan gaffe. Hisconstituents understood that the National was not a party platform but a golftournament.
And a very goodone, at that. Congressional is a gem, a past and future U.S. Open track, andthere were enough stars in the 120-man field to make up for the absence ofEuropeans like Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, who were slumming atthe European Open in Ireland. A Tiger-mandated ban on commercial signage andexcessive corporate hospitality meant that people, not logos, lined thefairways and circled the greens. "Tiger being the host has raised the levelof this event," said former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk. "Itdefinitely has a big feel to it."
A drill sergeanton a white-glove inspection might have found a minor flaw or two. Fairwaymarshals, for example, usually employ tiny flags to mark where balls havelanded in the rough, but those at the National had to drop their caps."Where are the cute little flags with tw on them?" an affable marshalasked when Brad Faxon drove into the rough at the 3rd hole. "I was ready totake my shoe off and throw a sock down."
No one elsecomplained about a shortage of flags. Old Glory fluttered atop every flagstick,and a stars-and-stripes banner the size of a basketball court decorated thefirst fairway on the Fourth of July, when former president George H.W. Bushsmacked the ceremonial first drive of the pro-am. That evening Mickelson and aselect group of pros watched the national fireworks display from the WhiteHouse balcony as guests of George W. and Laura Bush. "The White House wasgreat," said local favorite Fred Funk, who coached the University ofMaryland golf team before finding success as a Tour player. "I felt sohonored to even be asked."
The locals wereexcited too, but less by the fireworks than by the sight of Woods, who hadn'tplayed in the area since finishing 19th in the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional.Tiger hit some shots to cheer for last Thursday afternoon, but he also spent 34putts on his way to a three-over-par 73. Friday went much better--Woods tooknine fewer putts and shot a day's-best 66--but the host with the most spent theweekend like a man trying to touch off an aerial bomb with a too-long fuse,trying to coax his putts up to the hole on admittedly sluggish greens. Never athreat, Woods did birdie the last two holes on Sunday. That pleased his fansand gave him a respectable-for-a-host total of two-under-par 278, which tiedhim for sixth. "I hit the ball pretty good, actually," Woods said afterhis round. "Didn't putt well."
The crowd atCongressional was disappointed that Woods didn't win the trophy, a silverreplica of the Capitol. (It would have been fun to watch him present it tohimself.) But they certainly got full value from 37-year-old K.J. Choi, who puthis John Hancock on a three-stroke victory over Steve Stricker by holing abunker shot for birdie on the penultimate hole. Choi's win, his sixth in eightPGA Tour seasons, came only five weeks after his triumph in the Memorial."This week's trophy is a lot heavier than Jack's trophy," Choi joked inhis halting English, "if that means anything."
For his part Tigerwas just glad that his baby--the big televised one, not the littlethumb-sucking one--had gone off without a hitch. "Nobody's ever put on atournament of this magnitude so quickly," he said. "Now we've got sometime to figure out how we can make this tournament even better." Tigeradded, "For me, personally, maybe the greens could be a little quicker so Icould get the ball in the hole."
Note to the folksat Congressional: Make it happen.
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The putter let Woods down during an otherwise glorious week atCongressional.
With wins in the Memorial and AT&T National, Choi seems to be at his bestin events run by Tour greats.