Host With The Most

Host With The Most

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Tiger Woods comped 5,000 tickets a day to active-duty service members.
Hunter Martin/WireImage.com

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.”

The 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.

Oh, and a bunch of them were there to
see and celebrate Tiger Woods.

That 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.

It 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.

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.

Spotting 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.

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.

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).

“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.”

If
not for golf, Woods added, he might have
followed in the footsteps of his Green Beret
father.

“I don’t know what branch, but I
certainly would have wanted to get into the
special-operations community.”

Gliding 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.

What 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.”

Why 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.'”

How 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?'”

That 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.

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.

A Tiger-mandated ban on commercial signage and
excessive corporate hospitality meant that
people, not logos, lined the fairways and
circled the greens.

“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.”

A 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.

“Where are the cute
little flags with TW on them?” an affable
marshal asked when Brad Faxon drove into

the rough at the 3rd hole. “I was ready to take
my shoe off and throw a sock down.”

No 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.

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.

“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.”

The 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.

Tiger 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

him a respectable-for-a-host total of two-under-par 278, which tied him for sixth.

“I
hit the ball pretty good, actually,” Woods
said after his round. “Didn’t putt well.”

The 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.

“This week’s trophy is a lot heavier
than Jack’s trophy,” Choi joked in his halting
English, “if that means anything.”

For 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.

“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.”

Tiger 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.