- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Take yet another bow, Tiger. The third edition of the AT&T National was a roaring success.

When a weak field, a toothless track and snarled traffic threatened to short-circuit the marquee status of his event, sports’ ultimate emergency generator clicked on, powering arguably the most electric golf tournament locals have ever experienced.

Tournament host Tiger Woods was either on or atop the leader board all week at Congressional, galvanizing fans and driving up attendance until the galleries and buzz peaked for his Sunday showdown with defending champion Anthony Kim.

A D.C. area-record 46,000 fans showed up for Friday’s second round. And not even the amphitheater chaos surrounding the closing holes of the 1997 U.S. Open would trump the 10-deep, tee-to-green, roving horde of golf junkies who followed Woods and Kim in the finale.

Attendance figures soared because of the combination of Tiger’s performance and his largesse - more than 30,000 tickets were given to military personnel, and children under 12 attended for free.

But Sunday’s crush was driven largely by the Woods-Kim matchup: Most folks on the venerable 7,255-yard, par-70 layout knew they had a chance to witness the birth of a rivalry. And though the 24-year-old Kim clearly wasn’t ready to stand in the crucible and swap shots with his 33-year-old idol, that’s exactly what they saw.

Kim’s wild driving and poor putting made him the 46th victim in Tiger’s 49 attempts to close from the 54-hole pole. But there was no shame in the closing 71 that left Kim four shots adrift of Tiger’s final-round 67 and winning total of 13 under.

“That was the first time I’ve played with him in any round - practice round, tournament round, anything,” Kim said. “I feel like I’m one of the top players in the world. … I learned a lot from this event, and I’m taking a lot of positives away.”

None of the game’s younger players boast more combined charisma and talent than Kim, and even Tiger acknowledged that Sunday’s duel likely was the “first of many” between the pair.

Though nobody but playing partner Steve Marino saw his record-tying closing 62, Hunter Mahan (12 under) joined Kim and recent U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (who tied for fifth) in reasserting the strength of the United States’ twentysomething set.

Mahan, 27, who hasn’t missed a cut this season in 17 starts, goes to the British Open on a roll - tie for sixth, tie for fourth, runner-up - that began at Bethpage.

But Woods always was both the predictable and preferred winner. There’s a reason Tiger makes nearly twice as much as any other American athlete. He delivers time and time again. In a sport in which the previous greatest player, Jack Nicklaus, won 12.3 percent of the time (73 of 594 events), Woods wins more than twice as often (68 of 245 for 27.8 percent). Stick that in your Michael Jordan-Wayne Gretzky-Roger Federer-Lance Armstrong pipes and smoke it.

Tiger stopped just short of admitting that an AT&T field that featured only eight of the world’s top 25 players wasn’t the strongest. But he’s not one to grovel.

“I’ve never asked anybody to play,” Woods said when asked why more of the men he has helped make wildly wealthy didn’t turn up to support his event. “I feel awkward doing that. If the guys can find time in their schedule to play, we’d love to have them. [If they can’t], I understand.”

Of course, Woods truly addressed the potential dud dilemma by etching his name on the trophy. When life serves up an 18-ounce porterhouse, nobody quibbles over the garnish.

Tiger also knows Old Blue didn’t put its best foot forward this week. The wet weather turned the greens into dartboards at his pre-Open preview. The soft conditions yielded a pair of course-record 62s and six of the lowest 16 scores strapped on the old gal in 11 PGA Tour events and three majors.

He also knows that won’t happen again - not at the U.S. Open in two years nor when his tournament returns to Congressional from 2012 to 2014 after a two-year stint at Aronimink in Newtown Square, Pa.

The USGA will spend the next year renovating the layout’s greens in preparation for the 2011 U.S. Open. Not only are new greens firmer by definition, the renovation will include the installation of a subterranean vacuum system (see Augusta National) capable of sucking the moisture out of soaked greens. Never again will Old Blue’s pride be left to nature’s whim.

Throw in a few new tee boxes to lengthen outdated gems like No. 18 (which terrifies nobody wielding a pitching wedge) and the PGA Tour’s new V-groove rule, and Congressional will have her choppers back the next time the world’s elite players come calling.

Wouldn’t it be something if that return brought Woods back to Old Blue poised to match or surpass Nicklaus’ record tally of 18 majors?

That’s well within the realm of possibility given Tiger’s improving post-op form. Now that he has collected a PGA Tour-best three victories in nine starts this season, Woods has quashed further speculation about his rebuilt left knee. In fact, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t claim his fourth claret jug and 15th major title in two weeks at Turnberry.

“Hank [Haney] is coming down,” said Woods, who will spend this week at home in Orlando, Fla., tweaking his game with the noted instructor before heading to Scotland for the 138th British Open. “Hopefully I can play like I did this week and continue to build on the good work we’ve been doing.”

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