- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2008

One of the major questions entering this year’s AT&T National was how the tournament would fare with Tiger Woods, its host and main attraction, on the sideline.

And it appears the event came off just fine, though Woods’ absence and the constant threat of thunderstorms did depress ticket sales, particularly on Saturday.

About 107,000 fans arrived at Congressional Country Club over six days, down from 139,000 at last year’s inaugural tournament. The biggest drop came Saturday, when 22,311 spectators came compared to 37,614 last year.

“We feel that certainly fulfilled our expectations,” said Greg McLaughlin, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, the host and main charitable beneficiary. “Really, the only challenge we had was the threat of weather, but that’s the way the business goes.”

Some drop-off in attendance was to be expected. Last year’s tournament was one of the most highly anticipated events of the year in the area, with Tiger Woods present and nearly every top golfer accepting an invitation to play. Buzz over the tournament this year took an immediate hit when Woods announced after last month’s U.S. Open that he would undergo season-ending surgery on his left knee. Several top golfers subsequently announced they would play elsewhere or said they were battling injuries of their own, leaving the field with just five top-20 players.

On the course, players said they noticed a slight dip in crowds and excitement but that it was still on par with other PGA Tour events on the schedule.

“I think the enthusiasm might be down a touch from last year, but it’s still a great tournament,” Steve Stricker said Friday. “We’re at a great venue here at Congressional, and the course is in good shape. Coming here for the first time [last year] and with Tiger’s name on it and being the Fourth of July and him being here, I think the excitement level was a bit higher than it is this year. Not that it’s bad this year, but last year was pretty special.”

It’s impossible to know how many people stayed away specifically because of Woods’ absence. But fans who did buy tickets had few complaints, except for the stormy weather, which stopped play early on Friday and forced organizers to move up tee times for the final round Sunday.

“These are all professionals,” said Danny Smith of Bethesda as he stopped to observe golfers on Congressional’s practice green Friday. “Tiger’s obviously the best, but I’m here to see professionals at work. I’m sorry he’s not here. He’s obviously a talented guy. But there’s still a lot of quality golfers, and they’re all professionals, and they’re pretty darn good.”

Foundation and club members are working to solidify the tournament’s long-term future. Congressional will play host to the U.S. Open in 2011, leaving the location of the AT&T National unknown for 2010 and 2011. But the foundation has submitted a proposal to bring the tournament back to Congressional from 2012 to 2017. Congressional members will discuss the proposal at a town hall meeting July 29, with a member vote as soon as Aug. 20. The deal would call for a guarantee for 2012 through 2014, with three mutual option years.

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