In the beginning, when it swiftly and ruthlessly replaced the International on the 2007 PGA Tour schedule, the AT&T National Presented by Tiger Woods was a big deal.
Phil Mickelson played, as did Geoff Ogilvy, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and of course Woods himself. There were FOTs (Friends of Tiger) like Notah Begay III, and the whole happy exercise celebrated our men and women in uniform over the Fourth of July.
Much has changed.
Woods, of course, is a fraction of what he was both on and off the course, thanks to his erratic play and the near-total disintegration of his personal life.
The host course has gone from Congressional C.C. in Washington, D.C., to a two-year stopover at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia, starting this week, while Congressional is updated to host the 2011 U.S. Open.
Philadelphia last hosted a Tour event in 2002 (SEI Pennsylvania Classic) and its fans are especially excited to see Woods, who has never played there as a professional.
"I expect them to be loud and rowdy; there's no doubt," Woods said at the tournament's media day May 17. "You know, I think that they will be supportive."
Perhaps. Woods has never been more polarizing, and the City of Brotherly Love can be fickle. Fans at a Philadelphia Eagles game once booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs, and Santa's press was a lot better than Tiger's.
In any case Aronimink is relatively unknown by all except Sean O'Hair, who is a member of the club. It last hosted a Tour event when Gary Player won the 1962 PGA. All of which may help explain the weak field at this week's AT&T.
Neither K.J. Choi, the winner in '07, nor Stricker (the runner-up), Mickelson, Ogilvy or Players Championship winner Tim Clark will attend. Anthony Kim, who won the '08 AT&T and played in the final twosome with Woods last year, is injured. Not even Bubba Watson, coming off his first win in Hartford, will play the AT&T. Watson and Woods used to play practice rounds together. Where's the love?
(Watson will host a junior tournament in his new home state of North Carolina this week.)
Just three of the top 20 players in the World Ranking will tee it in Philly, on a course no one knows anything about, which means this could be the best week all year for a player like Rickie Fowler to break through with his first win.
"This golf course sets up for me perfect," said Robert Garrigus, who blew a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole in Memphis three weeks ago to remain winless. "All the bunkers, I can fly all of them with my driver. This golf course is unbelievable. I played it [Monday]. The rough is thick; the greens are perfect; the fairways are like walking on carpet. I joked with my caddie, I could've played the last eight holes with my shoes off."
Garrigus was one of three players the Tour brought in for press conferences at Aronimink on Tuesday. The other two were Woods and Dustin Johnson, who seemed to be on his way to winning the U.S. Open at Pebble until he shot a final-round 82. Seldom have three golfers been more in need of a Pick-Me-Up Bouquet, but perhaps they were a fitting sample of players for a tournament that's seen better days.
While things are not exactly rosy at the AT&T, the European tour's Alstom Open de France boasts top-10 players Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy, as well as Martin Kaymer (11), Ogilvy (19) and plenty of other good copy.
Frenchman Gregory Havret will compete for the first time since his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and Jose Maria Olazabal will make his first start of 2010 after a being sidelined with injuries. Sponsor's invitations include Ty Tryon, who made the cut at Pebble, Jean Van de Velde, and Italian teenager Matteo Manassero.
European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie will be in France to try to gather momentum for another run at the British Open in two weeks.
Many of the aforementioned players will have one eye on St. Andrews, and because Woods has won twice there, sports fans will have both eyes on Tiger in advance of the 150th edition of the storied tournament. He shot 66 at Pebble, but then shot 75.
Studying videotape since the early-May departure of coach Hank Haney, Woods has eliminated some of his more alarming misses, like the fat 3-woods off the tee, but he still hasn't been able to put together more than one good round. He hasn't won in 2010.
The AT&T's defending champion, he was characteristically coy about the state of his game Tuesday, but he did say his life is returning to normal.
"Outside the ropes there are certainly still distractions," he said. "It is what it is. I think everyone has had distractions in their lives. I think that my life out here on Tour is becoming more normalized, getting out here and talking to you guys about the game of golf and why I haven't won a tournament yet this year or why I hit that shot or this shot, and it wasn't like that at the beginning of the year. But now that certainly has changed, and for the good."
Being second-guessed by the golf media may be better than being second-guessed by Gloria Allred, but Woods won't be all the way back until he's winning again. In just his sixth start this season at the AT&T, against a field that also includes fifth-ranked Furyk, Robert Allenby (14), Lucas Glover (21), Y.E. Yang (22), Hunter Mahan (24) and O'Hair (27), he seems to have his best chance yet in 2010.
On other tours …
• Fred Couples used to play in the AT&T, but this week, when he'd qualify as perhaps the second biggest star on the marquee at Aronimink, he'll play the 50-and-over tour's Montreal Championship at Club de Golf Fontainebleau.
Joining him will be Corey Pavin, who is coming off a playoff loss in Hartford on the regular Tour; Mark Calcavecchia, making his second senior start; and red-hot Loren Roberts, who's coming off yet another Champions tour win.
• On the LPGA, Yani Tseng, Christina Kim and Paula Creamer are among the headliners at this week's Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic (a.k.a. Klinger Classic) Presented by Kroger, in Sylvania, Ohio.