- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2007

To fully appreciate how hard it is to win 57 PGA tournaments, as Tiger Woods has done, it helps to understand how difficult it is to win just one. As Exhibit A, I offer you Stuart Appleby. As Exhibit B, allow me to introduce Steve Stricker.

Both golfers are ranked among the top 30 in the world, and both had chances earlier this year to capture major championships. Appleby was the third-round leader at the Masters — and then double-bogeyed the first hole Sunday. (So much for that green jacket.)

Two months later, Stricker went to the 10th tee in the final round of the U.S. Open tied for the lead — and proceeded to shoot a 42 with three doubles on the back.

Yesterday at Congressional, the two of them had an opportunity to win Tiger Woods” inaugural AT&T; National — and fell short once again. Appleby, two shots clear of the field at the start, took himself out of contention by playing the first seven holes in a horrific 6 over. Stricker, meanwhile, was up by a stroke through 13 but then bogeyed 14 and 15 to open the door for K.J. Choi. Unlike his hiccupping competition, Choi seized the moment, holing out from a bunker and pulling away to a three-shot victory.

“Stuff like that happens when you’re going to win a tournament,” Stricker said of Choi’s clinching shot, which put the South Korean out of reach at 9 under. “It’s kinda destiny.”

So it goes for the Steve Strickers and Stuart Applebys of the tour. They’re recognizable names, sure, guys who’ve played in Presidents Cups and banked considerable amounts of money, but — like just about everybody else in their profession — their defeats far outnumber their victories.

Stricker will tell you straight out: “Not since 2001 have I won, and I’m realizing how difficult it is to finish something off. I’m sure the general fan doesn’t really understand that. You know, there are a lot of little things that go into it. Like today the greens were difficult to putt. You had to hit it in there really close to get a good chance at [a birdie]. There’s always something like that you need to overcome in the course of a round and especially the final round.

“It’s difficult. You have your nerves to worry about, and you have course conditions to worry about, and just trying to execute, you know, is sometimes the toughest thing to do.”

Few sports register anxiety more accurately — or publicly — than golf. A putter is like a cardiograph needle, telling you all you need to know about the inner-workings of a player. And, let’s face it, anybody who has ever picked up a club has experienced palpitations at one time or another.

Take yesterday. It wasn’t just Appleby and Stricker who felt the heat. Jim Furyk, a former U.S. Open champ, and Mike Weir, who has won a Masters, also were in the mix … and faded away. Golfers can be solitary souls — it’s the nature of the game — but if there’s one tie that binds these independent contractors, it’s the shared misery, week in and week out, of seeking but not quite finding. (At least, not usually.)

“I know exactly how it feels,” Choi empathized after watching Appleby’s implosion close-up, “because I’ve gone through that process, and I’ve been in that position, too.”

To survive in this environment, you need a hide thicker than an armadillo’s. An almost hallucinogenic self-confidence helps, too. Try to find somebody like that on eHarmony — sensitive enough to have touch around the greens but steel-willed enough to block out a 42 on the back nine of the U.S. Open.

“So many guys can win [a tournament],” Stricker said. “Brian Bateman was ranked, what, 340th in the world [when he won the Buick Open last week]? I think that’s what makes our sport so much fun to watch, just because you never know who might snap up a win.”

In recent months, Choi has been a veritable pit bull. Whenever he’s had a shot at winning — at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and now here — he’s Found A Way. Has he, at the age of 37, suddenly become tougher-minded than his foes, or is he merely a golfer on a roll? More information (e.g. titles), obviously, is needed. He has, after all, won a modest six times on the tour, two fewer than Appleby.

Thus ends the first of what hopefully will be many AT&T; Nationals, the tournament the Washington sporting public has long deserved. D.C. is back on the golf map in a big way. You couldn’t ask for a classier event — a better host, a better field, a better support staff or a better experience for spectators, all 139,389 of them.

Granted, Tiger, the people’s choice, had to settle for a tie for sixth at 2 under, but his tournament was an absolute hole-in-one. And with 12 months to prepare for AT&T; No. 2 — instead of the 116 days he had this time — the event should be even more marvelous.

This is just the beginning, folks. To borrow a line from Jackie Gleason, once a tournament host himself: How sweet it is!

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