If you're ever in the area," a fan told Phil Mickelson last Friday, "I'd love to show you the State Department." To which the world's second-ranked golfer, who was seven over par after two rounds of the inaugural AT&T National in Bethesda, Md., could have replied, "Well, I'm free this weekend."
\nThe fan, if you haven't guessed, was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who took up golf two years ago to give herself something more vexing to think about than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Condi was one of an estimated 140,000 spectators who last week roamed the wooded hills of Congressional Country Club, just outside the nation's capital, to celebrate Independence Day and to honor members of the U.S. armed forces.
\nOh, and a bunch of them were there to see and celebrate Tiger Woods.
\nThat may sound like too many objectives for a single golf tournament, but not in Washington, D.C., where "mission creep" is a way of life. Throw in the fact that Tiger was making his first public appearance since the birth of his daughter, Sam Alexis, and you had a golf tournament disguised as a baby shower wrapped in a national holiday.
\nIt turned out to be a resounding success for the PGA Tour. With its subtitle "Hosted by Tiger Woods," the National was an 11th hour replacement for the International, a well-run Colorado tournament that folded after 21 years due to poor television ratings and a lack of sponsors.
\n The D.C. market was available, ironically, because of the Tour's inability to find a new title sponsor for an event that had lasted nearly three decades despite weak fields and an undistinguished golf course, TPC Avenel.
\nSpotting an opportunity in an otherwise bleak situation, Woods and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem decided to build a new tournament in the capital around the one commodity that any Tour event needs to prosper in the Tiger Woods era: Tiger Woods.
\n Their models were the Memorial, a classy event that Jack Nicklaus hosts every spring in Dublin, Ohio, and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a snowbird favorite in Orlando that Woods won four times in a row starting in 2000.
\n Along with his bankable name, Woods provided Finchem with a sponsoring charity (the Tiger Woods Foundation), an experienced tournament director (TWF president Greg McLaughlin), a sentimental touchstone (Tiger's career-soldier father, Earl, who died in 2006) and a high-concept format (a USO-style tribute to America's volunteer warriors).
\n"They put their lives on the line for us," Woods said last week, explaining the National's gift of 5,000 tickets a day to active-duty service members. "The least we can do is say thank you, come on in."
\n If not for golf, Woods added, he might have followed in the footsteps of his Green Beret father.
\n "I don't know what branch, but I certainly would have wanted to get into the special-operations community."
\nGliding effortlessly from the martial to the marital, Woods used his pretournament press conference to satisfy the nation's curiosity about his infant daughter, born on June 18, the day after Tiger finished second in the U.S. Open.
\n\nWhat was the time line? "I flew, landed in Orlando, went straight to the hospital, and next thing you know, we have Sam Alexis in our arms."
\nWhy Sam? "My father had always called me Sam. I would ask him, 'Why don't you ever call me Tiger?' He says, 'Well, you look more like a Sam.'"
\nHow does it feel? "Well, it's something Elin and I talked about on our first night. 'How can you love something so much that didn't exist the day before?'"
\nThat last remark, suitable for a Hallmark greeting card, ignited the blogosphere a few shut-ins thought the golfer was addressing the subject of fetal viability but Woods tiptoed through the rest of the week without making a partisan gaffe. His constituents understood that the National was not a party platform but a golf tournament. And a very good one, at that.
\n Congressional is a gem, a past and future U.S. Open track, and there were enough stars in the 120-man field to make up for the absence of Europeans like Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, who were slumming at the European Open in Ireland.
\nA Tiger-mandated ban on commercial signage and excessive corporate hospitality meant that people, not logos, lined the fairways and circled the greens.
\n "Tiger being the host has raised the level of this event," said former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk. "It definitely has a big feel to it."
\nA drill sergeant on a white-glove inspection might have found a minor flaw or two. Fairway marshals, for example, usually employ tiny flags to mark where balls have landed in the rough, but those at the National had to drop their caps.
\n"Where are the cute little flags with TW on them?" an affable marshal asked when Brad Faxon drove into\nthe rough at the 3rd hole. "I was ready to take my shoe off and throw a sock down."
\nNo one else complained about a shortage of flags. Old Glory fluttered atop every flagstick, and a stars-and-stripes banner the size of a basketball court decorated the first fairway on the Fourth of July, when former president George H.W. Bush smacked the ceremonial first drive of the pro-am.
\n That evening Mickelson and a select group of pros watched the national fireworks display from the White House balcony as guests of George W. and Laura Bush.
\n "The White House was great," said local favorite Fred Funk, who coached the University of Maryland golf team before finding success as a Tour player. "I felt so honored to even be asked."
\n\nThe locals were excited too, but less by the fireworks than by the sight of Woods, who hadn't played in the area since finishing 19th in the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional.
\nTiger hit some shots to cheer for last Thursday afternoon, but he also spent 34 putts on his way to a three-over-par 73. Friday went much better Woods took nine fewer putts and shot a day's-best 66 but the host with the most spent the weekend like a man trying to touch off an aerial bomb with a too-long fuse, trying to coax his putts up to the hole on admittedly sluggish greens. Never a threat, Woods did birdie the last two holes on Sunday. That pleased his fans and gave\nhim a respectable-for-a-host total of two-under-par 278, which tied him for sixth.
\n "I hit the ball pretty good, actually," Woods said after his round. "Didn't putt well."
\nThe crowd at Congressional was disappointed that Woods didn't win the trophy, a silver replica of the Capitol. (It would have been fun to watch him present it to himself.) But they certainly got full value from 37-year-old K.J. Choi, who put his John Hancock on a three-stroke victory over Steve Stricker by holing a bunker shot for birdie on the penultimate hole. Choi's win, his sixth in eight PGA Tour seasons, came only five weeks after his triumph in the Memorial.
\n"This week's trophy is a lot heavier than Jack's trophy," Choi joked in his halting English, "if that means anything."
\nFor his part Tiger was just glad that his baby the big televised one, not the little thumb-sucking one had gone off without a hitch.
\n "Nobody's ever put on a tournament of this magnitude so quickly," he said. "Now we've got some time to figure out how we can make this tournament even better."
\nTiger added, "For me, personally, maybe the greens could be a little quicker so I could get the ball in the hole." Note to the folks at Congressional: Make it happen.