BETHESDA, Md. – It was a long, strange week at Congressional Country Club.
A week before the first Quicken Loans National began – Quicken Loans having taken over for AT&T as title sponsor – the tournament’s outlook was, to put it politely, bleak.
Ticket sales were down, sponsorships were down, the field appeared to lack star power and the pro-am wasn’t even close to being a sellout. The only good news was a promising weather report.
Then, on the Friday afternoon before tournament week, it all changed. At 3 o’clock – two hours before the deadline – Tiger Woods committed to play. In addition to being a 14-time major champion and the world’s most famous golfer, Woods is the tournament host, since the charity that benefits from the event is his foundation.
If President Obama had announced the end of all wars that afternoon in Washington, it would not have been quite as big a story as Woods saying he was coming to play at Congressional.
And so, on Tuesday, Woods arrived.
He spent 35 minutes talking to the media – about double the time he normally spends in a pre-tournament news conference – and said that, yes, he was playing because this was his event and, even though it might have been safer to rest his surgically repaired back for another week or two, he wanted to give it a try.
Woods’ every step, every swing was analyzed, from his session on the range Tuesday to his performance in the pro-am Wednesday to his rounds of 74 and 75 Thursday and Friday that left him four shots above the cut line.
Through it all he was decidedly un-snappish about his poor play and even said he felt very good about what had happened because “there were no setbacks.”
That was the most important Woods news of the week, even if he did sound like almost every golfer who has ever put a tee in the ground when he insisted Friday that he was “just a foot off here and there.”
On his way out the door, Woods stopped for a solid six or seven minutes – close to a personal best – to sign autographs. But then he was gone, deciding not to return to present the trophy on Sunday. Tournament director Mike Antolini told The Washington Post that the tournament staff had told Woods not to come back because he needed to rest.
And it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.
With Woods – and Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley and Jason Day – gone for the weekend, the leaderboard was filled with solid names but only one true star: Justin Rose.
A win by Patrick Reed, after all the grief he took for declaring himself one of the top five players in the world following his win at Doral, would have been a nice story. If Shawn Stefani had become the 10th first-time winner on Tour this season by making his 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, his victory would have been a neat story about a 32-year-old grinder who had never finished higher than fifth in a PGA Tour event.
In the end though, the stars of the week were Rose and the golf course.
Ever since 2011, when Rory McIlroy blitzed a course softened by a rainy spring and won the U.S. Open by shooting 268, the lowest score in Open history, Congressional’s membership has been upset about the beating McIlroy gave their storied layout.
The members left Sunday feeling a lot more sanguine about things when the players faced a dry, fast, firm golf course for the last 36 holes. Four players held the lead on Friday at 6 under par. Saturday, Reed was the only player still at 6 under. By Sunday Rose and Stefani were playing off at 4 under.
“If Patrick Reed shoots even par today no one’s going to come close to catching him,” predicted Steve Hulka, caddie for Brian Davis, just before the leaders teed off. “That is a brutal golf course out there now, and it’s only going to get tougher.”
If Reed had shot 71 he would have won easily. But he found water at 10 and at the diabolical 11th and double-bogeyed both holes. By the time he limped home with a back-nine 41 and a 77 for the day, he had dropped to a tie for 11th place.
Even though there was little humidity on Saturday and Sunday, players came off the 18th green looking exhausted. It was the U.S. Open two weeks after the U.S. Open.
Which is why it wasn’t that surprising to see Rose steadily moving up the leaderboard. He has typically played his best on the sternest tests, dating to 1998 when he burst on the scene at the British Open as a 17-year-old amateur and tied for fourth place.
Rose shot 2 over par for the week, two shots behind playoff winner Mark O’Meara and runner-up Brian Watts. A year ago, when Rose won the U.S. Open at Merion, his winning score was 1 over.
That’s why he didn’t panic when he was 4 over par after his first nine holes on Thursday. He managed to stay in the ballgame by shooting 74 and then came in with a 65 on Friday, which turned out to be the low round of the week.
“The golf course got very bouncy and firm and fiery on Saturday,” Rose said. “It was set up hard and I liked that. Sometimes when a course plays tough on Saturday, the Tour officials back it off on Sunday. They didn’t, which I liked. It felt like a championship golf course.”
Rose probably won the tournament on Sunday in the stretch around the turn. On Saturday he played Nos. 9, 10 and 11 in 6-3-6. Sunday, it was 4-3-3 – including a birdie at the almost impossible 11th hole.
“That’s a shot and a half on the field,” he said. “Especially after Saturday, that really got my heart pumping.”
Even though Rose spent the last few holes fighting a miss-left off the tee, he made several tough up-and-downs – including one for par on 17 and one for bogey on 18 after finding the water – he managed to piece together a gutsy 1-under 70. That got him into the playoff with Stefani, who ended most of the suspense when his second shot found a similar spot in the water that Rose had found in regulation.
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the drive leading up to Congressional’s clubhouse was lined with flags showing players who were in the tournament. The very first flag on the morning before Woods committed was of Rose. By the next morning, he had been moved back several rows, replaced at the front by Woods.
“It’s his tournament, that’s fine with me,” Rose said earlier in the week when he heard about his demotion. Then he smiled. “Maybe by Sunday, I’ll make them move me back up front.”
As it turned out, he called his shot.