Like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods eschews strong-arm tactics to fill his event’s field

When Tiger Woods committed Friday afternoon to the Quicken Loans National, he created the kind of buzz only he can stir in golf. There will be a focus on the tournament — on the health of Woods’s back, on his performance just three weeks before the British Open — that simply wouldn’t have existed had he been unable to play.

In the midst of that stir Friday, the other 119 players in the field for the PGA Tour stop at Congressional Country Club were announced, too. It includes Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion who won this event in 2010. It includes Jason Day, the Australian star who was runner-up to Rory McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open, staged at Congressional. And it includes Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old star-in-the-making who contended at both the Masters and the Players Championship this spring.

Each of those players made his own decision to sign up for Congressional, annually one of the PGA Tour’s toughest tests. They all have their own reasons for playing — just as McIlroy, five-time major champ Phil Mickelson, top-ranked Adam Scott and others have for sitting out. As much as this is Woods’s event — the staff of his foundation runs it, and the foundation is its main beneficiary — he’s not making phone calls and twisting arms to get people to play.

“I haven’t traditionally done that because I know what it feels like to be on that side, where people ask you to play,” Woods said in an interview last month. “And I don’t want to put that on the players. My staff will do that for me. That’s their job. But as far as a player, I won’t pursue them like that, because I know what it feels like. I don’t want to put them in that situation.”

Despite Woods’s presence as a host and Congressional as a top-flight venue, Woods’s tournament — in its first year with Quicken Loans after a seven-year run as the AT&T National — has traditionally had a difficult time drawing a strong field, and encouragement from the 14-time major winner likely wouldn’t matter. This year, four-time major winner Ernie Els — who won the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional — will play an event he has usually skipped. Jason Dufner, the winner of last year’s PGA Championship, will also play, and Patrick Rodgers, the former Stanford star who just turned pro, adds an unknown element as a brand-new pro.

Can Tiger Woods still pass Jack Nicklaus?

But for every intriguing character that will be here, there’s one who won’t. Woods, Day, Spieth and Rose give the event four of the world’s top-10 ranked players, but just five of the top 20 will be here — and for several reasons.

The U.S. Open was last week, and many top-flight European players — including McIlroy and 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell — travel across the Atlantic immediately afterward. The Irish Open, an important event for Northern Irishmen McIlroy and McDowell, is this week. The BMW International Open in Germany is next week, overlapping with the Quicken Loans National, and German star Martin Kaymer, who won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, isn’t going to miss the chance to play in his home country.

Mickelson traditionally takes time off after the U.S. Open and reappears the week before the British Open over the Atlantic, at the Scottish Open.

“It’s just playing schedule,” Woods said. “Guys need time.”

There are other factors as well. The same qualities that make Congressional an attractive venue to host a U.S. Open — its length and difficulty — can make it discouraging for regular PGA Tour players who aren’t in favor of playing in major championship conditions on a weekly basis. Last year, after the first round in challenging conditions, former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover lamented the number of regular PGA Tour stops that are toughening up their courses, a group that includes Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament, the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte and the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio.

“We’re here to entertain these people that pay a lot of money to come watch us play golf — not try to make par,” Glover said that day. “. . . We’re supposed to show these people how good we are, not how we can chip out of the rough.”

So a player such as Scott, who won the Masters in 2013 and had played the National the past three years, will skip this year’s tournament. He swapped in the Crowne Plaza Invitational, which he won.

“I haven’t had very much success there,” Scott said at the U.S. Open. “Just some things about the setup, and I decided to change.”

Woods’s star power alone isn’t enough to overcome all those factors. The Memorial, held on Nicklaus’s difficult Muirfield Village course outside Columbus, traditionally draws one of the best fields in golf. But it is situated nicely on the schedule — a month-and-a-half after the Masters, two weeks before the U.S. Open. And the strength of that group — seven of the top 10 players in the world, with only an ailing Woods joining Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Spain’s Sergio Garcia on the sideline — isn’t because Nicklaus is leaning on players to commit.

“I have never asked a player to play in the tournament,” Nicklaus said last year. “The way I always selected my golf tournaments, I selected them based on the quality of the golf course. We try to present the best golf course we could present and make sure that we take care of the player, that they play that tournament in the proper conditions and proper surroundings and make sure that they felt like it was a significant event.”

That, too, is what Woods’s staff has always tried to do with its events, which now includes the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, one of the legs in the PGA Tour’s annual FedEx Cup playoffs. Woods’s ability to play here next week was a significant lift to his staff, but the quality of the field doesn’t affect their preparation.

“We’re all very focused on the things we can control,” tournament director Mike Antolini said. “We want to put together the best event possible for the players, the fans — everyone.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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