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AT&T National May Return With Earlier Start Date

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."

The most likely date appears to be sometime in May. The PGA Tour is currently working through sponsorship issues that will affect its future schedules, and it is possible dates earlier on the calendar might free up. McLaughlin said he has always thought of the meat of the golf schedule as being from March 1 through the U.S. Open, and the tournaments with those dates benefit.

"Outside of the majors, they have the best fields," McLaughlin said. "They just do. They always have."

A May date could work better for Congressional, too, by freeing up the course for the membership from Memorial Day through the summer.

For now, the tournament is headed to Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia for 2010 and 2011. After that, it will be held at Congressional in 2012-14. Woods would love to keep the event in Bethesda for "perpetuity," he said last week. But that might necessitate a move.

"I think the date provides some challenges for some guys," McLaughlin said.

AT&T National Notes: McLaughlin said that fans who present drivers' licenses from the District, Maryland and Virginia will be admitted to the AT&T National for free next year, when the tournament is held at Aronimink. . . .

The tournament drew overnight ratings more than three times higher than last year, when Woods did not play.

The Associated Press reported that CBS said the final round earned a 4.6 rating and an 11 share, up from a 1.5 rating and 3 share in 2008, the highest rating for a non-major on CBS since January 2008, when Woods won the Buick Invitational.

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