It seems silly, with a weekend’s worth of golf ahead of us, to look back instead of forward. Yet just five days behind us is one of the PGA Tour’s best moments of the year: Jordan Spieth holing out from a bunker for birdie to win a playoff and perhaps introducing the Jose Bautista-level club flip into golf’s celebration mix.
Ten years behind us now, we have what amount to faint memories: Tiger Woods, then the indisputable and immovable No. 1 player in the world, hosting the inaugural AT&T National at Congressional Country Club. His foundation wanted to make a home here. His tournament was our tournament. D.C. wasn’t just on the golf map. It appeared to have pull and sway.
On Thursday, when the rebranded Quicken Loans National teed off across the street from Congressional at refurbished TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, Spieth wasn’t here, resting before the British Open. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, who joined Spieth in the field for last week’s event outside Hartford, Conn., didn’t put their pegs in the ground, either. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson — eh, why name them all? They all have their reasons for skipping Washington, and they’re good ones.
Most prominently, though, Woods couldn’t be here. Not to play. Not for the opening ceremonies early in the week. Not for the trophy presentation at the end.
“Every night, I’m sending him an email, and I get a response,” said Rick Singer, president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation. “I have a long list of texts from him today. He wants to know everything that’s going on.”
From a distance. By necessity, from a distance.
By Sunday night, TPC Potomac might produce a whale of a tournament. Maybe Rickie Fowler will duel Patrick Reed on the back nine. Maybe this tough track will reach up and grab someone over the last few holes. Maybe someone will hole out from a greenside bunker to win a playoff. Maybe we will have a memorable Washington golf moment that produces a worthy champion.
But walk around TPC Potomac, lush and long, and it’s inevitable: What’s not here trumps what is. That’s no disrespect to Fowler, a compelling character who is ranked ninth in the world, or Reed, already an American Ryder Cup hero, or Justin Thomas, who would like to believe he can join his buddy Spieth in the upper echelon of this sport. All are interesting players. Any would be nice to add to a list of previous champions that includes Woods (twice), Justin Rose (twice), K.J. Choi, Anthony Kim, Bill Haas and Billy Hurley III, the Navy veteran whose victory last year at Congressional was one of the tour’s most compelling stories of 2016.
But when you look at the tee sheets, it’s difficult to avoid the absences. The most important, after all the years and all the injuries, is Woods. He isn’t at his own tournament because he is seeking help for what he has said is a problem with prescription medications. Given that this issue left him, on the morning of Memorial Day, asleep at the wheel of his car, unaware of his surroundings and the most basic information, there’s simply no way to criticize his choice to stay home. We know none of the details of his relationship with his meds. But shrugging off that circumstance didn’t seem an option.
That said, the difference between Woods’s athletic prowess and public image a decade ago vs. now is stark, and it’s enough potentially to threaten the future of PGA Tour golf in Washington. In 2007, Woods could snap his fingers and make AT&T dance, yearning to become the sponsor. Much of the membership at Congressional was honored to host his event. This would be Nicklaus at the Memorial or Arnie at Bay Hill. Washington as Woods’s East Coast headquarters? Yes, please.
Now, following repeated back and leg surgeries, he is broken as a player and, at least in part, as a person. AT&T left as the title sponsor of this event following 2013. Quicken Loans signed on as a replacement, but that deal ends following this year’s tournament. Singer said the Tiger Woods Foundation is “having discussions in a lot of places, and we feel good about it.” Congressional is due to host in 2018 and 2020, and if TPC Potomac holds up this week — and early indications are that it will, with ease — it would make sense to come back here in 2019.
“You could 100 percent host a U.S. Open here starting tomorrow,” said Thomas, who shot a 63 in the actual Open earlier this month.
Another difficulty, though, is the calendar. The Washington event has fallen into a squishy spot on the golf schedule: when the top international players (and some Americans) have headed across the Atlantic to prepare for the British Open. Many of the other elite players simply decide to rest. Fowler is the only player ranked in the world’s top 10 in this field.
There are four major champions here. Can you name them?
Geoff Ogilvy, who took the 2006 U.S. Open (current world ranking: 231); Lucas Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage (current world ranking: 100); Keegan Bradley, who looked like a star on the rise when he won the 2011 PGA (current world ranking: 101); and Jimmy Walker, who won last year’s PGA and is ranked 39th.
That’s four total major championships in a field of 120. Woods, of course, has 14 all by himself.
And yet he’s not here. And there’s not much sign of him. His foundation stages the tournament and benefits from it. But the pictures on the massive poster behind the driving range are of Hurley and Fowler.
And yet, just as it was a decade ago, it’s largely up to Woods — and his team — to work to keep PGA Tour golf in this market. The vultures are circling. People in Detroit see hometown Quicken Loans as the sponsor and say, “Why not bring it here?” The tour’s schedule is complicated and crowded, and it’s possible when new television contracts are negotiated — network deals with CBS, NBC and the Golf Channel run out after 2021 — one or more current tournaments will die.
So if you’re a golf fan in D.C. or you’re raising a golfer, you have to pull for Tiger.
“We’re fully confident we’re going to move forward, just like we have before,” said Singer, who moved to Washington when he took his job. “D.C. is not only the nation’s capital, but it’s an important market overall, one of the most important markets here in the U.S. and really in the world. And frankly, from our perspective — this is separate from the tour — but D.C.’s been an important market for the foundation.”
A decade ago, it seemed Woods’s mere presence would make his tournament feel like a pillar of the PGA Tour’s schedule. Now he is seeking help. Whenever he reemerges, will he be able to make his tournament — his Washington tournament — into what we all expected it would be?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.