The hype isn’t nearly as pronounced as it was when the US Open was held at Congressional last June, but the PGA Tour is back in town.
One hundred twenty of the world’s best golfers, including Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods, who are third and fourth, respectively, in FedEx Cup regular season points are competing on the same course in Bethesda in the AT&T National that began yesterday and continues through Sunday.
Of course, tournament host Woods, the most dominant golfer of this, and perhaps any era is the big drawing card despite – partly because of? – the ugly and highly publicized end to his marriage.
However, there are plenty of other competitors who are worth watching. The field also includes: former US Open champions Angel Cabrera, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk and Lucas Glover; Masters winners Trevor Immelman and Vijay Singh (who’s just a shot behind first-round leader Bo Van Pelt at three-under 68); British Open champions Ben Curtis and Justin Leonard;; PGA winners Davis Love III and K.J. Choi, who also won the first AT&T National in 2007; and 17-year-old wunderkind Beau Hossler, who led the Open early in the second round on June 15.
It’s an illustrious group, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone will tame Old Blue – which debuted in 1924 and has been redesigned three times since — the way that 22-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland did with a US Open record 16-under par last year while winning by eight strokes.
McIlroy’s amazing performance was the greatest that Washington golf fans have ever seen, but it didn’t come in the first major at Congressional. That was the 1964 Open, in which Ken Venturi – who became more famous as a gold commentator — held on to win in 100-degree heat, the same kind of weather predicted for this weekend. Dave Stockton won the PGA title at Congressional in 1976 and South Africa’s Ernie Els won his second Open there in 1997. That came two years after Tom Weiskopf captured the Senior Open in Bethesda.
The AT&T National isn’t the first non-major PGA event to be played just off the Beltway. The Kemper Open was played at Congressional from 1980-86 and at nearby Avenel from 1987-2006 (with the 2005 event back at Congressional because of construction at Avenel). Greg Norman (who said he thought Avenel’s ninth hole “should be blown up with dynamite), Sergio Garcia, Tom Kite, Craig Stadler (back-to-back after finishing second in 1980) and Fred Couples were among the winners of the Kemper, which was later called the FBR Capital Open and then the Booz Allen Classic.
Couples, who won a five-way playoff in 1983, and Steve Stricker (1996) each achieved their first Tour victories in the Kemper while Leonard grabbed just his second in 1997.
And don’t forget the women. Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan (her third) all won LPGA Championships from 1990-93 at Bethesda Country Club, just a few long drives closer to the District from Congressional and Avenel.
Despite all of this golf history that has been made in Bethesda and despite the vast popularity of the game in our area, Washington hasn’t produced many great golfers. Our major claims to fame on the links are: Bethesda’s Deane Beman, the PGA Commissioner from 1974-94 and the 1969 Open runnerup; the District’s Lee Elder, who broke the Masters’ color barrier in 1975; Senior Open champions Fred Funk of Takoma Park and Olin Browne of the District; and Fairfax’s Steve Marino, who withdrew from the AT&T National because of a knee injury.
Maybe that lack of local standouts is one reason we’ll crowd Congressional this weekend to cheer on players from all over the world. The national capital area has abounded in talent on the basketball court and swimming pool, but in golf we have come up as short as a failed gimme putt.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin