Friday, July 6, 2007

Lots of folks give lip service to supporting our troops, but golfer Tiger Woods has put his money where their jive talk is.

“We wanted this to be about the military, reflecting well on the military. It was all about honoring the people who are making sacrifices,” said Randall Stephenson, the chief executive officer of name-sponsor AT&T

Thank the Tiger. More than 300,000 active-duty military personnel will be given free tickets to attend the AT&T National golf tournament through this weekend at Congressional Country Club because of Woods” largess. His father, the late Earl Woods, was a Green Beret and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel.

Hey, my dad”s name is Earl. Does that mean I can claim something in common with the Tiger? (Some folks will grasp at any straw to get up and personal with a big cute cat, just as the area”s leaders and fans would do anything to forge a permanent Washington-Woods connection.)

The chance to repay our servicemen and women through free tickets, Woods said, “gives me chills already. All my life I”ve been part of the military.”

Two Iraq war veterans, Sgt. Andrew Amor and Sgt. Maj. Mia Kelly, also got the chance to play a round with their host and sponsor when he teed off at dawn on Wednesday in the Pro-Am.

“It”s what they call a ‘gimme,’ ” said former President George Bush, who hit the tournament”s ceremonial first shot.

Woods, 31, grew up on military bases and said he learned to play the game on military courses. At a press conference, he noted that he told his father that he might join the military if he was not successful as a professional golfer.

Local soldiers and their families are not the only group that will benefit from this all-Americana golf tournament, held as the nation celebrates its birthday. The entire Washington region stands to get a big bang from the Tigermania — psychologically as well as financially.

This is really Tiger”s Tournament, Tiger”s Time and could very well become Tiger”s Town. (If only wishes made it so.) That”s if the Washington area remains the annual patriotic venue for this world-class event on the PGA Tour, which local officials should work to ensure.

Tournament organizers say they are committed to keeping Tiger”s Tourney in the Washington area, though arrangements with Congressional are firm only through next year. Still, there are other nice courses in the region that could host Wunderkind Woods as a drawing card.

The AT&T National should become as much a July Fourth tradition here as the fireworks on the Mall. Having the world”s highest-paid athlete and No. 1 golfer working his mojo in our midst is bound to be good for the local economy, for starters, especially since the organizers have asked for no government goodies to play their games.

One reported estimate suggests that fans will fork over $7 million in hotel rooms and $7.7 million on food and other services during the five-day tournament, which features five of the top six golfers on the PGA tour, including Phil Mickelson.

The No. 2 golfer in the world, Mickelson told reporters that part of the draw for him was the way Woods incorporated the military and the community into the tournament.

“It”s great that Tiger”s in a position to host an event and be able to have such an effect on so many lives, [not the least because of] his Tiger Woods Learning Center. … I think this can really be one of the elite events. It looks like it”s already starting.”

Not since the return of Major League Baseball in 2005 — though at considerable and mounting cost to D.C. taxpayers — has a sporting event created so much energy and excitement and buzz.

One golfing friend told me not to look for him the rest of the week because “I”m going out to see Tiger.” He obviously was not alone. Montgomery County police were geared up for 25,000 to 40,000 fans flocking to the Bethesda course and the four satellite parking sites.

While adults are paying a bargain price of $25 a ticket to glimpse greatness, Tiger”s Tournament is free to children 12 and younger.

Count children as another beneficiary of the tournament, aside from its $6 million purse, through the Tiger Woods Foundation.

When Woods announced his plans for the tournament, many in the area, including yours truly, voiced the hope that he would set up a Tiger Woods Learning Center in our region similar to the one near Los Angeles for students in grades four through 12.

Though he has said he would like to open a center here, we are eagerly awaiting a firm commitment.

He could start with presenting some of the proceeds from the inaugural Earl Woods Memorial AT&T Tournament to the deserving youth programs under the leadership of the venerable Jimmy Garvin at the historic Langston Golf Course programs in far Northeast.

Come to think of it, that area around the 55-acre site abutting the Anacostia River would be the perfect place to incorporate the Interpretive Education Center that serves 500 District youths into a Tiger Woods Learning Center.

Most of all, it is a welcome relief and a hopeful sign that an athlete of Tiger Woods’ stature presents such a positive role model not only to children and young people but to his fellow athletes. While too many of them seem bent on being Bad Boyz, the gracious and respectful Woods is in a class all his own where he walks the walk far beyond the fairway.

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