Inaugural Success Is All Tiger's, Long Term Is Up to Congressional

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, July 9, 2007

Notah Begay III says there are only three sporting invitations a man simply must accept.

"You have to say yes if Michael Jordan invites you to shoot hoops," Begay said. "You have to say yes if the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders invite you to view their swimsuit competition. And you have to say yes if Tiger Woods wants you to come and play golf. . . . As far as Tiger hosting a tournament in Washington, D.C., it was amazing, and I'd come back every time."

Okay, Begay is Tiger's close and dear friend. They attended Stanford University together. But Begay's sentiment was repeated by any and every golfer asked to venture an opinion on whether Tiger's new tournament, the AT&T National, will continue to attract the kind of elite field and enjoy the extreme level of passionate support it did in this inaugural weekend at Congressional in Bethesda.

Rich Beem, who was critical of the event when it was first announced because Tiger limited the field from 156 to 120 competitors, is no longer critical.

"I still wish we had a larger field because I just feel Washington, D.C., should have that," Beem said after his final round. "But everybody wants to support whatever the greatest player in the world supports. I did get thrown under the bus a bit when I was critical of Tiger not having a full field here. But I didn't look at the big picture. My dad, like Tiger's, was in the military. I attended military schools. . . . That's near and dear to my heart, as well as what Tiger's efforts are including children. . . . He put on one helluva event this week."

Golfers, remember, aren't accustomed to being supportive of anything in a team sense. They don't gush. While incredibly charitable as a group, they're still individual artistes who usually have their own diva agendas. But they appeared to be in lock-step behind Tiger in pulling off this event.

Robert Allenby gushed after his Sunday round. Unprompted, he told The Post's Kathy Orton, "I think it's pretty awesome that Tiger's so young, staging his own tournament. When you think what he's done in his career -- his career's been so short really, 10 years -- he's done so much for the game, in every different area of the game. As far as the money we play for, it's all Tiger's influence. Everything we do, we owe him. We're very fortunate that we're playing in the same era as Tiger Woods, even though he is winning a lot. We're benefiting in many ways, and one of the ways is him putting on a tournament like this."

So, this much is established. Anybody Tiger wants, Tiger gets, even in the hellish summer heat and humidity of Washington, even Phil Mickelson, who isn't his close and dear friend. The AT&T National could very well become as important to the culture of professional golf as Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill and Jack Nicklaus's Memorial have been for years.

As Begay said, "As many important issues, things and people pass through Washington, D.C., as any place in the country . . . any place in the world. There ought to be a marquee event in the world of golf here. What's instructive and probably most important is that there was so much collaboration involved to pull this off in such a short time. There was no in-fighting that I heard one word about, no individual agendas that got in the way."

There's only one thing that could get in the way.

The venue.

It's an old story around here, but one that takes on added significance in light of this weekend.

Tour pros, in the main, don't want to play at TPC Avenel, which hosted the area's PGA Tour stop 19 times. Okay, don't count Beem in that group. Beem won the Kemper Open at Avenel in 1999 and said he plans to whisper in Tiger's ear, "Psssssst, Tiger, Avenel is across the street!" Beem said he believes that if Tiger hosted a tournament at Falls Road Golf Course he would get an elite field. That's quite a compliment, but Tiger doesn't want to host anything across the street. Not interested.

Phil Mickelson wouldn't have come to play if this event was at Avenel.

Veteran Billy Mayfair said it succinctly Sunday afternoon: "You put Tiger Woods as host and a great course like Congressional and you've got something people want to be involved with. What happened here this weekend was amazing. You put it down the street [at Avenel], and you're probably not going to have the same kind of field. Guys will come here, to Congressional. Guys want to play old-fashioned, U.S. Open-style courses, and that's what this is."

But Congressional won't be available in 2009 and 2011 because of the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. So where then? Robert Trent Jones might be the only viable compromise. Finding a venue is the primary challenge and perhaps the only serious one (outside the weather) that Tiger's tournament faces.

But what we've come to learn about Tiger is he's as skilled as he is strong-willed, and that's not just on the golf course. He appears to be moving comfortably into the moving-and-shaking phase of his life. There's stuff he wants to do, and this tournament is one giant first step on that road. Those prominent world-class golfers expressing their support for Tiger is like an "Amen" chorus telling the sport's powers-that-be to fall in line and get this done.

Just before heading into the clubhouse at Congressional, Tiger made one point perfectly clear. "We need a fantastic venue. . . . We want to come here," he said. "We want to come here every year."

He didn't mean "here" as in "Bethesda." He was talking about Congressional.

Given the sizzle of a Tiger-hosted tournament and Washington's shameless love of any event of this magnitude, it's impossible to think D.C. doesn't want this for the long, long-term. Of scheduled sports events here, this jumps ahead of everything except Redskins-Cowboys, Redskins-Giants, Redskins-Eagles, and the 2011 U.S. Open.

"I didn't think we'd get this type of turnout and this type of energy," Tiger said, still in mild disbelief after his final round. "It's the same type of energy as Bethpage. . . . We didn't sell as many tickets [as that 2002 U.S. Open] but could have. We didn't put as many up for sale."

The men and women in uniform particularly thrilled him. So did seeing children of every conceivable race and nationality riding their daddies' shoulders to get a glimpse of him if only for a few seconds. He called the galleries, "young, vivacious . . . special. To see that many kids out, it was just like when I first came on tour in '96."

Tiger said he hadn't heard one negative comment all weekend, but like any good host he wasn't going to wait for people to come to him with suggestions. "I'll ask guys, 'How can we make this better?' "

And while any event needs to be tweaked and tinkered with, what we've learned from the last week is if that Tiger Woods hosts it, people will come.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company