AT&T National May Return With Earlier Start Date

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga talks about Tiger Woods and his victory at his own tournament at Congressional Country Club over the weekend. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When the AT&T National closed up Sunday evening, and Tiger Woods clutched the trophy on the 18th green at Congressional Country Club's Blue Course, it marked the departure of top-level professional golf in the Washington area for two years. When it returns -- first with the U.S. Open in 2011, then with Woods's PGA Tour event in 2012 -- it could look a bit different.

The PGA Tour schedule for 2012 isn't even in its infancy, but there are several factors that indicate the AT&T National, which has been held over the Fourth of July weekend in each of its first three years, might return to a new spot on the calendar when it comes back to Congressional after a two-year hiatus so the Bethesda course can prepare to host the U.S. Open. It could be earlier in the year, perhaps in May.

"We're certainly open to looking at new dates and discussing them," said Greg McLaughlin, the tournament's director and president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, the charity that benefits from the tournament. "Nothing is even close to being decided, but we'll have those discussions."

The willingness to move -- even after Congressional drew nearly 200,000 fans over the past week, when Woods beat Hunter Mahan by one stroke to take the title -- is multi-faceted. It starts, though, with the strength of the fields the tournament has drawn since its inception in 2007. Washington's tour stop, most recently called the Booz Allen Classic, usually brought middling fields to the former TPC Avenel. Once Woods became the tournament host and Congressional, the venerable course that is worthy of hosting major championships, became the venue, the thought was that world-class fields would follow.

That hasn't happened. The field this past week included only two players in the top eight in the world rankings, and Woods was the only player among the top six on the PGA Tour's money list. Woods, golf's most powerful name, has never asked anyone to play in his tournament in the interest of strengthening the field, he said.

"I feel awkward doing that," Woods said. "If the guys can find time in their schedule to play, we'd love to have them. I've always felt awkward doing that because I understand the guys' commitments to their schedules, their foundations -- or some golf courses fit their eye, some golf courses don't. I get it.

"For the guys who have come here over the last three years and played, hopefully they've enjoyed their time."

Players have praised both the tournament's organization and Congressional's Blue Course. But McLaughlin said: "There are a lot of guys that we wish would come and play this event that really haven't. There's a tremendous amount of guys that are top players that are 0 for 3. They haven't come."

Among those: Kenny Perry, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington. The spot on the calendar is one significant factor players consider when selecting tournaments to play. Though the Fourth of July is well-positioned in some regards -- two to three weeks after the U.S. Open and two weeks prior to the British Open -- it also comes when many of the players who regularly play the European tour are headed back across the Atlantic to gain points toward the season-ending "Race to Dubai."

"That certainly has affected us," Woods said. "But overall . . . we've had a lot of top guys play. So you can't say it's been a negative. The only thing that we haven't really gotten is the European players to play."

McLaughlin also said some veteran players with families are reluctant to play on a major holiday such as Independence Day. That combination of factors make drawing the strongest possible field difficult.

"It's hard," McLaughlin said. "The event's young, very young. Guys get used to playing certain dates in the schedule, and it just takes time to build that brand. I think that just comes with time. I think Congressional is such a great golf course; we're hoping that after the Open, when we come back here, more people are going to want to play it because they loved the course during Open week."

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