- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Though festivities for the third installment of the AT&T; National won’t officially begin until Tuesday’s arrival of host and headliner Tiger Woods, tournament buzz began building Monday morning as the first wave of competitors descended on Congressional Country Club for practice-round previews of venerable Old Blue.

“Coming home is always special for me because I’ve still got friends and family in the area,” D.C. native and 15-year PGA Tour veteran Olin Browne said. “I’ve never seen the course in better shape. It’s perfect. The rough is penal but fair, and the greens are already fast and pure. It’s absolutely immaculate.”

Browne is part of the 120-man field that will begin play Thursday on the 7,255-yard, par-70 layout that has hosted 10 PGA Tour events and a pair of U.S. Opens (1964 and 1997) and will enjoy that honor again in 2011. Given that wealth of history and the unparalleled status of the tournament host, perhaps more than eight of the world’s top 25 players could have been expected to convene at Congressional for a working vacation.

But the event is sandwiched into a somewhat awkward spot between the U.S. Open and British Open. Many of the top international players will skip this week and play next week’s Scottish Open, using the start at Loch Lomond as a competitive run-up to the British Open (July 16-19).

As a result, the AT&T; field is missing a bevy of marquee foreigners, including Sergio Garcia, Geoff Ogilvy, Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

But no event featuring Woods can be considered “weak,” and the 14-time major champion will be joined at Congressional by a solid cast boasting world No. 3 Paul Casey, defending champion Anthony Kim, newly crowned U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and top-tier PGA Tour staples Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh.

Monday’s early arrivals included U.S. Open runner-up Ricky Barnes, who will be attempting to continue his career revival this week at Congressional.

“I feel like I’m playing well,” said Barnes, who has recorded four of his five best finishes of the season in the past six weeks. “I’m swinging well. My coach [Dean Reinmuth] is going to show up [Tuesday], and we’ll get back to the basics. Somewhere along the line last week [at the Travelers], I got a little tired. But I’ll probably take Tuesday off and just work on my short game so that I’ll be ready to go come Thursday.”

When Barnes followed his All-American career at Arizona with the 2002 U.S. Amateur title and a low-amateur finish at the 2003 Masters (21st), he was instantly saddled with heavy expectations of being a can’t-miss prospect. What followed was a sputtering attempt to earn his PGA Tour card via sponsors’ invites in 2003 and five grinding seasons as a Nationwide Tour also-ran.

Though Barnes never won on the Nationwide Tour, he accumulated nine top-10 finishes on golf’s secondary stage last season, finishing 25th on the money list to earn his PGA Tour card for this season by the slimmest of margins. After a sluggish start to the season, the 28-year-old tied for 60th at the Byron Nelson and tied for 47th at the St. Jude Classic before erupting at Bethpage to post the lowest 36-hole total in U.S. Open history (8-under 132).

History likely will label Barnes’ closing 76 at the Open a collapse. And though both of his fellow runner-ups (Phil Mickelson and David Duval) overwhelmed him in the headlines, Barnes played the final six holes 1 under, grazing the lip with a 72nd-hole birdie putt that would have psychologically stretched Glover’s final 4-footer into a playoff-avoiding nightmare.

“Was I stoked with what I shot today? No. But was I happy with the last six holes? Yes… I would say a lot, lot more good came out of this week than bad,” Barnes said that day.

Like Bethpage, Congressional’s extreme length and relative difficulty suits Barnes, a strapping bomber who has never putted well enough to excel in the birdie bonanzas for which the Nationwide Tour is famous. Barnes has continued to struggle with the short stick this season, tying for 192nd or third-to-last on the PGA Tour in putting (1.841 putts per greens in regulation). But his recent streak of solid starts has given him the strongest injection of confidence since his amateur days.

“I’m only one week away from getting a hot putter,” said the ever-optimistic Barnes, still searching for his first victory as a professional. “I’m doing a lot of things well. And the week that you do a couple of things great is the week that you finally break through.”

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