AT&T National host and headliner Tiger Woods didn’t turn up at Congressional Country Club this week to press a little flesh and throw a couple of cocktail parties. Nope, he intends to lord over the proceedings… quite literally.
“I love being the greedy host,” Woods said, unabashedly embracing victory as his top priority. “It is fun winning your own event. There’s no doubt. Hopefully I can do that again this week.”
Though the 33-year-old Woods has never won the AT&T National, finishing tied for sixth at the inaugural event in 2007 and missing last year’s tournament after season-ending knee surgery, he has spent the last decade gutting his guests at the Chevron World Challenge. An unofficial event held annually at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., the Chevron routinely has been Woods’ Christmas present to himself (2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007).
What could be better than inviting 15 of the world’s best golfers to the Conejo Valley the week before Christmas, paying them handsomely to attend and then playing golf Grinch with their collective pride?
How about downing a field of 120 players on a U.S. Open track in an official event?
Following the career template set forth by his golf idol Jack Nicklaus, who twice won his Memorial Tournament (1977 and 1984), Woods hopes to do exactly that this week on a 7,255-yard, par-70 layout that he has had tweaked to quasi-U.S. Open specifications.
“I’ve had a little bit of a say in [the setup],” Woods said with his signature Cheshire Cat grin. “I want the rough up and the greens firm.”
Translation: Woods wants the week to feel more like a preamble to the 2011 U.S. Open and less like the prologue of last week’s Travelers Championship, where defending AT&T National champion Anthony Kim posted rounds of 66-66-67-67 but didn’t even crack the top 10.
“I’ve never been a big fan of a having to average 67 or 66.5 to win a tournament,” said Woods, who has collected the vast majority of his 67 PGA Tour titles and 14 majors on courses and in tournaments that place a higher premium on par. “I’ve always liked to play a golf course where you have to think your way around like a chess match.”
That’s one of the primary reasons he selected a testy, traditional track like Congressional for his namesake event. The tournament will make a two-year pilgrimage to similarly revered Aronimink in Newtown Square, Pa., in 2010-11 while Congressional preps and hosts the U.S. Open. But the Bethesda club already has signed on to play host to Tiger and Co. from 2012 to 2014. And lest anyone thinks Woods intends to take his tournament to other famed Northeast venues in the future, golf’s No. 1 was quick to put the quietus on such talk Tuesday.
“We want to be here for years to come - in perpetuity, really,” said Woods, giving a not-so-subtle message to the Congressional membership, which passed the last extension by a slim margin. “Hopefully we can all make that happen.”
In the short run, Woods is still hoping to regain his pre-op form. His ball striking has improved in seemingly each of his 2009 starts as his left leg grows stronger, but Woods has struggled of late with his putting. After collecting two victories (Arnold Palmer Invitational, Memorial) in his first seven appearances this season, his short stick betrayed him at Bethpage two weeks ago, forcing him to swallow a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open after doing so at the Masters.
“It’s still in the bag,” Woods said when asked whether his Scotty Cameron Newport blade had been banished after the Open. “It’s been OK for a number of years. It’s done OK. But, yeah, it was certainly altered Monday night [after the delayed Open finish].”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the gracious host’s sharp wit. It’s his party, and he gets to hand out his favorite favors.
“Just because he’s hosting doesn’t mean the needling stops,” said Woods’ good friend Bubba Watson, the tour’s longest hitter (312.0 yards) with his signature pink driver shaft. “He’s relentless and a lot funnier than most people know. I’ll try to get him back by calling him a short-knocker, and he’ll just ask me how many tournaments I’ve won [zero] or call me Mr. Pink or text me something like ‘67-0.’ You can’t one-up him.”
The collected media tried Tuesday afternoon, lobbing oddball questions at Woods referencing pop-culture subjects from Jim Brown and Michael Jordan to Roger Federer and Michael Jackson. Woods answered them all with casual aplomb, maneuvering around each potential PR hazard the way he dissects par 5s before bringing the interview back to the event at hand.
“We’re looking forward to this week,” Woods said. “It’s certainly become a pretty special event in its short, short history.”
It’s pretty easy to envision one outcome that would make it even more special.