- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

DUBLIN, Ohio — Like its famous host, the AT&T; National endured an afternoon of mixed results at yesterday’s Memorial.

World No. 1 Tiger Woods fought his way around Muirfield Village in 70 strokes, a somewhat disappointing opener given the exceedingly benign conditions on Jack Nicklaus’ 7,366-yard, par-72 signature track. But a frustrated Woods was cheered somewhat by the news that two of his marquee challengers have upgraded the likelihood they will be on hand to help him inaugurate the AT&T; National next month at Congressional.

“I haven’t committed officially, but I’ll probably be at Congressional,” world No. 6 Vijay Singh said yesterday. “It’s certainly much more than likely.”

And though he’s still less than 50-50 to attend, world No. 5 Ernie Els cautioned against counting him out for Congressional after yesterday’s superb 66.

“I haven’t totally thrown it out the window,” said Els, who won the second of his U.S. Open titles on Old Blue in 1997. “I love Congressional, as you know. Mike Leemhuis, the general manager there, is a great friend of mine. He’s offered me the room right on top of the clubhouse. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll still roll up there. You never know.”

Those promising late-afternoon comments reversed a disconcerting trend for the upstart event, which is having a difficult time cementing a marquee field in spite of its epic host and revered venue.

Because of its last-second substitution for the now-defunct International, the AT&T; National (July 2-8) falls opposite one of the more high-profile European Tour events (Smurfit European Open) in the run-up to the British Open.

The European Open will be held at the K Club in Straffan, Ireland, the site of last year’s crushing European Ryder Cup victory. And with the British Open just two weeks later, most members of the victorious European Ryder Cup team (with the notable exception of Woods’ close friend Darren Clarke) are planning to hold a sort of celebratory Ryder Cup reunion at the K Club.

“I know I’ll be in Ireland,” said world No. 12 Sergio Garcia, who won the last PGA Tour event contested at Congressional (2005 Booz Allen Classic). “I love Congressional, but I couldn’t miss the chance to go back to the K Club and relive some of the feelings from the Ryder Cup.”

Joining Garcia in Ireland will be fellow European Ryder Cup heroes and top-10 denizens Henrik Stenson (No. 7), Luke Donald (No. 9) and Padraig Harrington (No. 11).

Australian Geoff Ogilvy (No. 8) is “likely” to play at Congressional. But if the birth of Woods’ first child were to preclude him from playing, the AT&T; National could feature as few as two of the world’s top-12 players; only Jim Furyk (No. 3) and Adam Scott (No. 4) are definite commitments.

Perhaps the biggest surprise among the elite American contingent is the certain absence from the field of the game’s beta attraction — Phil Mickelson. Lefty withdrew from the Memorial yesterday with a sore wrist but not before a member of Team Mickelson confirmed the world No. 2 would not be at Congressional.

“Phil had already given his word to other events such that if he played at Congressional it would mean playing seven of eight weeks, including two majors (U.S. and British Opens) and a transatlantic flight,” Mickelson spokesman T.R. Reinman said. “It’s nothing personal. It’s a combination of prior commitments and some unfortunate logistics.”

Frankly, it might be a little more personal for the Europeans. Though none — save Garcia — has any past friction with Woods, current relations are strained at best between the PGA and European tours.

As a high-profile member of both tours with his primary home in London, Els has noticed an escalation in the animosity between golf’s largest competitive circuits in recent months.

“Yeah, I think there definitely is [an increased strain] because of the FedEx Cup,” said Els, who would have to add a pair of transatlantic flights to play in the AT&T; National. “I think basically it’s because of the U.S. tour [which will play host to all four of the supposedly international WGC events this year]. That’s why there’s a bit of tension. They’ve got the better players over here, and they’ve got more money. And we, as independent contractors, tend to go where the cash is most of the time.”

Els logically points out that events like the AT&T; National could be helped if the two tours would sit down and make their schedules together so that the best players could maximize their marquee exposure. But a European tour more threatened than ever by this season’s addition of the FedEx Cup clearly has tried to stack its schedule around its major jewel — the 136th British Open (July 19-22). Knowing that golf’s glitterati will focus its July around the assault on Carnoustie, the European tour has filled out the month with three of its next eight top-purse events.

And, it seems, not even Tiger can trump an entire tour.

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