The faithful were finally rewarded yesterday at the Booz Allen Classic. After several consecutive years of misery or mediocrity at Washington's PGA Tour stop, this event finally delivered the golf goods just when it was least expected.
Adam Scott and Charles Howell III, two of the best young players in the world, were dazzling in what may be the first of many battles that help define the sport over the next 15 years. This time, the 23-year-old Australian won by four shots as he tied TPC at Avenel's course record with a brilliant 21-under-par 263. Howell, however, left his spectacular mark all week from a course-record 61 on Thursday to a blitz of five straight birdies on the final nine that shook, but did not crack, Scott.
Attendance for the week was not announced. But those who came got just what they deserved. They may not have seen the world's most famous players. But they got to enjoy two prodigiously powerful players who will probably carve out careers comparable to two other distinguished champions who first identified themselves in Washington: Greg Norman and Fred Couples.
In recent years, Washington golf fans have had buzzard luck. Our local PGA Tour stop has been plagued by Biblical rains, parking lot quagmires and, twice in three years, final rounds that were played in near anonymity on Monday mornings.
Unless the names Tom Scherrer, Frank Lickliter II, Bob Estes and Rory Sabbatini make your heart beat fast, the eventual winners were as much curiosities or human-interest stories as compelling champions.
Even the name of the tournament became a trivia contest. Was it the Kemper Open, the FBR Capital Open or the Booz Allen Classic? Three names in three years: Talk about an event with an identity crisis.
This year was supposed to be the absolute pits. In return for 25 seasons of continuously strong support, this area was rewarded with a field as weak as any that the PGA Tour has ever shipped to Washington. The event's date, a week after the U.S. Open, was inherently anticlimactic.
In fact, the fare was deemed so light for this golf-hungry area that, as a kind of apology, the sport arranged for next year's Booz Allen to be played at historic Congressional Country Club the week before the Open, ensuring a superstar-filled field.
Everything that has bedeviled this event in recent years was suddenly reversed this week. Instead of rain, there was sunshine and pleasant summer temperatures, except for a brief Friday storm. Each had brought spectacular scoring as Avenel's greens, often criticized in the past, were in their best condition in 17 years. As a result, the pros could show all the talents that were muzzled last week at Shinnecock Hills. Scott had a 62 on Friday, and Howell closed with a 65 yesterday.
"I was getting a little nervy there on the back nine," said Scott, who saw Howell post birdies at the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th holes. "It's nice to be able to respond to a little bit of pressure.
"There's no question that Charles and I will be out there playing against each other for a long time," said Scott, who won the prestigious Players Championship in March and now has three tour wins. "It may be the start of a bit of a rivalry [though] we are pretty good friends."
Those in the sport know that Scott and Howell are among the rare and anointed who attract the attention and help of the greats. Howell says his best friend is "Tiger," who called him this week with encouragement. His coach, David Ledbetter, is one of the game's guru legends. As for Scott, he received a combination pep talk and kick-in-the-butt phone call from his hero -- Norman -- before his final round.
"Greg was all over me because he didn't like my chipping action," said Scott, whose breathtaking power has developed under the coaching of Butch Harmon. Yes, that would be the same Harmon whom Woods essentially discarded.
Before coming to Avenel last week, Scott practiced at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, site of the Presidents Cup. "It was the greatest demonstration of power we've ever seen at the golf course," said George Burger, chairman of the Presidents Cup Committee.
While Scott's raw scores -- 66-62-67-68 -- make it appear that he could hardly have lost, he knows better. "You always need winner's luck," he said. "Everyone who wins gets good breaks."
Scott got three huge ones yesterday as he hit atrocious drives on Nos. 6, 13 and 16. The first drive stopped short of going in a creek. The second wild drive went through a tree, hit a cart path and ended up bouncing within 200 yards of the par-five 13th hole, allowing Scott to reach the green in two. After those two scary misses to the right, Scott snapped his drive far left at the 16th, but stopped short of knee-deep grass in a perfect tramped lie.
However, the most important shot may have been one that his caddie would not let him attempt. Norman suggested to his longtime caddie, Tony Navarro, that he might want to work Scott's bag. "He thought I might enjoy the golf and the person," said Navarro. Since Navarro has caddied for 24 years and Scott is 23, the kid tends to listen.
At the 14th tee on the short but dangerous, water-guarded 301-yard par-4, Scott was hot and bothered -- mad at himself for playing the previous five holes in 1 over par and feeling the heat of all those Howell birdies in the group in front of him.
"I asked him what he thought of hitting driver. He said, 'Not much,' " said Scott. For a caddie, that's the audacious equivalent of screaming, "Are you out of your mind, kid? Hit the three-iron, flip it on and make the putt for birdie."
Scott obeyed, made his birdie, then immediately birdied the next hole to essentially ice the tournament.
For the past 25 years, Washington's PGA Tour stop has repeatedly served the same purpose: to identify future stars before they are widely known. Winners such as Norman, Couples, Craig Stadler and Justin Leonard gained wider visibility here. Even the runners-up included future major champions such as Mark O'Meara, Corey Pavin, Larry Mize and Ian Baker-Finch.
In the past few years, the Kemper FBR Capital Booz Allen Classic Open had fallen on dreary, soggy and unlucky times. Sometimes, as cars were towed from axle-deep mud in parking lots or Sunday evenings did not produce a winner, it seemed this event was snake-bitten. Suddenly, on a week when absolutely nothing special was expected, record scores hit the board and the two most exciting young players in the field took their games to the heights.
Impossible as it would have been to believe just a few days ago, it is the '05 Booz Allen Classic at Congressional that now has the hard act to follow.