The sixth AT&T National is in the books, yet we still don’t feel well-acquainted with the tournament or its host.
That’s partly because Tiger Woods didn’t come to town in three of the previous five years (though to be fair, the National was held in Pennsylvania twice in that span). Partly because Woods didn’t wow us in the tournament’s prior three years at Congressional Country Club, with a sixth-place finish in 2007, a did-not-play in 2008 and a one-stroke victory in 2009.
And it’s partly because Woods‘ star power, while electrifying, is less-than-magnetic, failing to draw some of golf’s biggest names. It doesn’t help that his invitation-only tournament occupies a tough spot on the PGA Tour schedule, but it also doesn’t help that he’s Tiger Woods — the fierce competitor with little time for pleasantries and no room for personality.
So when Woods does battle for the title, it’s not against the likes of Phil Mickleson (one National appearance) and Ernie Els (zero). It’s against guys such as up-and-coming Hunter Mahan, the 2009 runner-up, and Bo Van Pelt, who had one win in 309 tournaments entering this week.
That’s not to suggest that low Q-ratings equals a lack of drama. Van Pelt nearly matched Woods stroke-for-stroke Sunday, providing a thrilling conclusion to a sweltering weekend. Ticekt-holders and volunteers were allowed back on the course after being banned following Friday night’s violent thunderstorms, while local fans tuned in to CBS if they were fortunate enough to still have electricity.
With his two-stroke victory, Woods improved to 2-2 when he plays in his tournament. More importantly, it marked his 74th win on the PGA Tour, which moved him into sole possession of second place on the career list. It also broke his tie with Jack Nicklaus, which Woods set by winning Nicklaus’ tournament, the Memorial, in June.
Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods have more in common than sharing golf’s Mount Rushmore. They also host three of only five tournaments given “invitational’ status by the PGA Tour. Both elder statesmen have a big headstart on Woods and the National. The Arnold Palmer Invitational has been played (under several names) since 1966. The Memorial dates to 1976.
It would be great if the same-caliber golfers who have won those tournaments — Mickleson, Els, Tom Watson, Fred Couples — became regulars at the National. Woods‘ event should be a star-studded, a hoped-for invite to make an exclusive field. But in addition to the schedule and the host’s steely demeanor, another factor could work against the National: the host’s re-emergence.
Woods has won three times this season. No golfer won more than two PGA events last year, and Jim Furyk is the only pro who won three times in 2010. If Woods is ready to begin treating his tournament like he treats Palmer’s tournament — seven victories in the past 13 years — or Nicklaus’ tournament — five victories in the past 14 years — top golfers have another reason to skip the National.
If so, the best-case scenario might resemble this weekend — minus the temperatures and power outages. At one point Sunday, the leader board was bunched tighter than a NASCAR race on a short track, with five golfers tied for the lead at 6 under. You can’t ask for more than that — as long as one of them is known for wearing red for the final round.
“Shank it Tiger, into the trees!” one fan fake-shouted under his breath after Woods teed off on No. 8. Woods still gets the most support on the course, but it’s not unanimous. Van Pelt soaked up the underdog love while the third golfer with him and Woods, Brendon de Jonge, was a favorite among Virginia Tech fans. (Unfortunately, he played like a “Chokie”).
The leading competitors didn’t have the biggest names, which might be the norm for as long as the National is here at this point in the schedule. But at the end of the day, Woods was a gracious host for three days and then showed his competitors the door.
We can’t ask for more that.