Baskets of fuzzy orange, black and white tiger club covers rested next to the entrance of Congressional Country Club's golf shop, untouched by refugees from the shirt-soaking afternoon humidity.
A few feet away, next to "Congo Swim and Dive" sweatshirts, two AT&T National volunteers picked through piles of keepsakes Wednesday.
"You think he's really hurt, his elbow?" the woman asked.
"Nah, I'm not sure," the man replied.
The question hung in the air-conditioned cool. Tiger Woods is everywhere at the tournament he hosts this week except the place everyone wants to see him: the Blue Course's 18 stroke-sucking holes.
Woods doesn't plan to return until next month's British Open, recovering from a strained left elbow that put him under doctor's orders not to pick up a club. But the withdrawal — Woods' third from his own tournament in the past six years — adds to questions about the event's long-term future in Washington.
When Woods pulled out last week, a 132-golfer field already light on big names took a body blow without the world's top-ranked golfer. The event lost its roar.
Then Justin Rose withdrew Monday, citing exhaustion following his U.S. Open victory at Merion Golf Club earlier this month.
That left just three of the world's top 20 golfers — Jason Day, Masters champion Adam Scott and Brandt Snedeker — and precious few household names to draw the attention or dollars of casual fans. The same spasm of anticipation that greeted Bryce Harper's round of batting practice at Nationals Park on Sunday morning felt as distant as a spot out of the searing sun. More buzz surrounded the adventurous red panda named Rusty who briefly absconded from the National Zoo earlier this week.
There's no truth to the rumor, at least not yet, that the red panda is next up on the AT&T National alternate list.
Asked Wednesday about the tournament's buzz, or lack thereof, Woods twice used the word "fantastic." He invoked wounded warriors (the tournament donated 30,000 tickets to service members and their families), talked about freedom and giving back. All the nonanswer lacked was sparklers, flag-waving and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." This seemed less a golf tournament than a patriotic exercise.
Asked again, Woods deflected the question back to the clattering cameras and onlookers pressed against temporary walls in the interview room. The tournament's defending champion didn't have an answer.
"I don't know," he said. "You guys are in the media."
Woods can transform the most lackluster of fields, energize the most languid of tournaments with speed that rivals the misters scattered throughout Congressional's grounds. Subtract him and the sticky, uncompelling reality fast closes in.
The tournament occupies a difficult position in the PGA Tour's schedule, resting in the awkward gap between the U.S. Open and next month's British Open. Big-name international golfers like Rory McIlroy have returned to Europe. McIlroy, who cut through the Blue Course to win the U.S. Open by eight strokes in 2011, is entered in the Irish Open this week.
The AT&T National isn't even a must-stop for U.S. standouts like Matt Kuchar or Steve Stricker or Bubba Watson. All are absent this week. There's little incentive, other than the $1.1 million winner's share, to fight the high temperatures and relentless humidity of late June in the Washington area when one can rest and refit ahead of the trip to Muirfield.
That shouldn't be surprising. Not when the tournament hasn't been a must-play for its own host.
Congressional's contract to host the tournament is up after 2014. Woods retreated to "fantastic" again to describe the course and event.
"Yeah, we would love to be back here," he said. "It's obviously up to the members and the board whether we come back here or not. I know we would like to play."
At the golf shop, the man and woman who speculated on Woods' injury stepped outside.
The bite of cigars mixed with the smell of cut grass and, on occasion, too much cologne. Montgomery County sheriff's deputies with clear earpieces and serious faces strolled through the light crowds. A few people paid $7.50 for a cheeseburger or a Stella Artois. Sunburn turned uncovered arms and legs pink. Neon polo shirts dotted the driving range. Some things don't change.
Tiger, though, was nowhere to be found.
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