The last time Tiger Woods set foot on the grounds at Congressional Country Club, he stood on the 18th green of the Blue Course and raised both hands in the air, then awarded himself the trophy that indicated he was both the host of the AT&T National and the tournament’s champion. Those happy, heady times were nearly three years ago.
“That was a tough one,” Woods said. “It was a hard-earned win.”
Monday, Woods returned to the Bethesda club — initially donning a golf shirt and shoes for a chipping contest against a few select fans, then a suit and dress shirt for a news conference — to reintroduce Washington not as much to his golf game, but to his tournament and his foundation. The AT&T National, which spent 2010 and ’11 in suburban Philadelphia while Congressional underwent renovations and then hosted the U.S. Open, comes back to its original site next month.
Woods used his event Monday to promote the tournament’s beneficiary, the Tiger Woods Foundation. Since Woods helped save PGA Tour golf in Washington in 2007, foundation officials say they have spent $14 million in grants and other endeavors in the District and surrounding area.
“The event is bigger than what I do on the golf course,” Woods said.
To that end, Woods spent the hours before his appearance at Congressional at a fundraising luncheon in Georgetown. He invited a recipient of a college scholarship named for Woods’s late father Earl to speak at Monday’s event. And he generally tried to draw distinctions between his play on the course, spotty for the past two years, and what he considers important work off it.
“For me as a player, that’s a separate designation,” he said. “Me as a player, I want to win the event. But I think me as a person — as a whole, as part of the foundation — it’s bigger than hitting a golf shot.”
Fairly or not, the golf shots are scrutinized more intensely. Woods followed his 2009 victory here with three more on the PGA Tour that season, then another in Australia. Winning still seemed second nature, and was assumed.
But beginning with a sex scandal in late 2009 that eventually led to his divorce, then a three-month absence in 2011 to deal with left leg injuries — injuries that cost him an appearance at last year’s Open — it has become clear that the Woods who held off Hunter Mahan at the 2009 AT&T National is in the process of being replaced by a different version. His win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March was his first official PGA Tour victory in more than 21 / 2 years. But because he tied for 40th at the Masters, then missed the cut in Charlotte and tied for 40th again at the Players Championship — saying all along that swing changes begun two years ago aren’t yet ingrained — he likely will arrive at Congressional as a much-watched work in progress.
“I think that I’m headed in the right direction,” Woods said. “You have to understand: Even when I’ve had some really good years — whether it was in the early 2000s or mid-2000s — even if I was winning golf tournaments, I still thought I could improve. I could still get better each and every day. I never looked at it as like: ‘Oh wow, that’s my peak. I can’t do any better.’ If that’s the case, I’d rather walk.”
The field Woods will compete against at Congressional, which will hold the AT&T National through 2014 and has an option to re-up for three more years, is still taking shape. Officials announced Monday that defending champ Nick Watney, who won last year when the tournament was held at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia, will play, joining former AT&T National champs K.J. Choi, Justin Rose and Woods. (Anthony Kim, the 2008 winner, is sitting out much of the PGA Tour season because of injuries.)
Tournament director Greg McLaughlin said the event also has commitments from Mahan, ranked sixth in the world, one spot ahead of Woods; 2010 British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen, who lost this year’s Masters in a playoff; and Dustin Johnson, the young American star who hasn’t played since March because of injuries, among others.
But Monday, Woods didn’t care much about his own play, or the field against whom he would compete.
“They don’t really need me winning golf tournaments,” Woods said. “They don’t need me participating on a golf course, period. This is about education. This is about kids making something of themselves, and then obviously giving back and becoming mentors themselves.”