Last July, when Tiger Woods tipped his cap on the 18th green at Congressional Country Club, acknowledging an overflowing crowd on the banks of a pond below the clubhouse, professional golf in Washington seemed at its apex. The world’s best player won his own tournament, the event he brought to the nation’s capital when it seemed there would be none to host here, and Woods could celebrate a milestone: passing Jack Nicklaus for second on the PGA Tour’s all-time wins list.
Wednesday, though, Woods announced he would be unable to return to defend his title in the AT&T National, the victim of a strained left elbow that bothered him at last week’s U.S. Open, where he struggled over the weekend and fell out of contention. Though he still plans to travel from his Florida home and support the event — which is both run by and supports the Tiger Woods Foundation — this marks the third time in the past six years he won’t be able to play, leaving the field without its marquee attraction.
“I have been advised to take a few weeks off, rest and undergo treatment,” Woods said in a statement posted on his Web site. “I’ll be ready to go for the British Open, and I’m looking forward to playing at Muirfield” in Scotland, where the next major will be contested in July.
“I would like to extend my regrets to AT&T, our sponsors and the fans in the Washington, D.C., area. The AT&T National means a lot to me and my foundation. It’s especially difficult not defending at my own tournament. It’s going to be a great event, and I look forward to being there to provide my support.”
Woods was not available for further comment, a spokesperson said. He will hold a news conference and participate in the opening ceremonies — which each year honor the military — next Wednesday at Congressional. Still, the strength of the field — both in star power and talent — takes a hit unlike when any other individual pulls out.
“When Tiger’s in the field, it adds a lot of just different dynamics that exist from overall interest, bringing out casual golf fans, or really not even golf fans, just because people see what he’s brought to the sport,” said Greg McLaughlin, the tournament director and president of the Tiger Woods Foundation. “The interest that he brings, certainly that’s unmatched.
“But I would say our ticket sales have been strong. The fans of golf come out because it’s a big event, a big event in the area, and they’ll come out to support it. You probably lose the causal sports fan that might not be a real golf fan that just decides to maybe not come out. Their interest and curiosity is to see Tiger.”
Last year, 48,611 fans came to Congressional to see Woods close out his victory in the final round. In 2009, 43,936 did the same. In 2008, the only other time the event was at Congressional and Woods didn’t play, 29,867 showed up on Sunday to see Anthony Kim win.
Woods’s withdrawal both informs recent evaluations of his performance and would seem to raise questions about how he can fare going forward. McLaughlin, who first knew Woods would be unable to play the tournament on Tuesday, said the injury does not appear to be the kind that could keep the world’s top-ranked player out for long.
“Certainly, this is the most prudent thing he can do,” McLaughlin said. “There’s a lot of golf still to play — two majors, the FedEx Cup, which he leads. They’re telling him, ‘You rest for three weeks, you’re going to be in good shape.’ It makes perfect sense.”
Woods, who has won four times on the PGA Tour this season, first showed signs of an injury during the first round of the U.S. Open last Thursday at Merion Golf Club, when he twice winced after hitting shots out of thick rough. Following the completion of his first round, which occurred Friday morning, when he was asked what prompted such a reaction, he said simply, “Pain.”
He was just as circumspect after his second round, allowing only that he suffered the injury during the Players Championship, which he won in May. But he wouldn’t give an indication how much it affected him during a tie for 65th at the Memorial or during the Open, where he shot rounds of 76 and 74 over the weekend to finish 13 over par — his worst score in relation to par in a major as a pro, 12 shots back of champion Justin Rose.
Woods also missed the AT&T National in 2008 because of a broken leg, an injury he endured to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines but which kept him out of action the rest of the year. He won the following year but missed the event again in 2011 because of an Achilles’ tendon problem suffered at the Masters. That year, the AT&T National was held at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia, but the Achilles’ injury kept Woods from playing at Congressional, which hosted the U.S. Open for the third time.
Rose, newly minted as a major champion, now inherits the mantle as the tournament’s top draw. Rose, who won the 2010 AT&T National at Aronimink, has verbally committed; official commitments are due Friday. The inclusion of Masters champion Adam Scott would give the tournament the winners of the year’s first two majors for the first time in its history.
Brandt Snedeker, a two-time winner on tour this year who is ranked eighth in the world, and fellow American stars Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler are also expected to play.