Hawk's Nest: The decline of the AT&T National


So I’m lying on the couch Sunday afternoon, half-asleep and basking in the role of aging sloth, when I hear Verne Lundquist tick off a few names of those playing in this week’s AT&T National. CBS has the telecast at Congressional, so this is just a harmless little promo as the fellas enter the homestretch at the Travelers Championship. No reason to terminate my partnership with horizontal splendor and grab my shotgun.

Nick Watney, Vijay Singh, Brandt Snedeker,” Lundquist says.

“Great field,” replies boothmate Ian Baker Finch.

God bless IBF. He could find something nice to say about the clutter in my garage. Before Tiger Woods bailed on the AT&T with an elbow strain, the field was substandard. Without Tiger, it’s a great reason to wash your car: just eight of the top 50 in the world ranking, only two of them in the top 15.

Jim Nantz may ask to take another week off. It’s pretty amazing, what has happened at both the Travelers, which was on life support seven years ago, and the AT&T, which earmarks its charity dough to Tiger’s foundation and appeared destined to become golf’s seventh major (after the four real ones, The Players and Quail Hollow).

Great field? We’ll get back to insurance and telecommunications in a moment. Gotta go see if my next-door neighbor has a spare can of Turtle Wax.

ERNIE ELS HAS been a very good player for a very long time. His first and fourth major titles came 18 years apart, and there were many big triumphs in between, adding up to a Hall of Fame career by one of the most likeable superstars you’ll ever meet in this game. Els has always been quick with a smile and a kind word, a man whose sincerity and self-deprecation skills go over well with the media and his tour brethren.

For those who might have missed it, Els won the European Tour event in Germany this past weekend. When you’re 43, every victory is a big one, but after Adam Scott’s late collapse dropped the claret jug in Els’ lap at last summer’s British Open, it’s hard to say this latest W amounts to a career revitalization or improves his chances of winning another British at Muirfield next month.

It does offer a chance to share some of my favorite Big Easy yarns over the years. By his own admission, Els was a bit of a rube when he arrived in the U.S. to play full-time in 1994. He and his wife, Liezl, were having trouble getting around at the old Buick Classic just north of New York City that spring. One wrong turn led to another, and it wasn’t long before the two young South Africans were treated to a dose of old-fashioned, northeast hospitality.

“We accidentally cut some guy off, and he gives us the middle finger,” Els recalled. “Both of us burst out laughing. It was like, ‘OK, you’re in America now.’ It was our official welcome.”

He would win the U.S. Open a week later and lose some big tournaments he probably should have won—no top-tier player seemed more affected by Woods’ dominance in the early-2000s than Els. After claiming his first British Open Championship at Muirfield in ’02, Els was being shepherded around by a pack of R&A officials when he saw a small group of print journalists waiting to get a few minutes with him.

As he began walking toward us, one of the Ancients tried to stop him. “I’m gonna talk to these guys now,” he said in a rather clear tone, and for the next half hour, he gave us everything we wanted and more. When Ernie Els insists, it’s a good idea not to attempt resistance. He is a big man, listed at 6 feet 3 inches and perhaps 220 pounds, but when you stand next to him, those numbers seem laughable.

At the 2004 Masters, I was heading from the media center to the 18th green, where Phil Mickelson had just holed a birdie putt to win his first major. This was maybe 90 seconds after Phil’s historic 4-inch leap, and Els, who had stuck around by the green to watch, was now walking to the clubhouse. Our paths would cross; Els thought I was approaching to talk to him.

He jumped me something fierce, and it shook me up. Twenty minutes later, I was talking to someone on the porch in front of the clubhouse when I felt a large paw come to rest on my shoulder. Els would apologize for the outburst with an expression and voice that I will never forget – a look quite similar to the one on his face after Scott handed him the British Open.

At the end of 2011, Els was in serious danger of losing his Tour card. Next month, he’ll return to Muirfield as a dual defending champion. Since journalists aren’t supposed to root for any competitor, let’s just say a third British Open crown wouldn’t exactly send me into a funk.

THE ONE THING that struck me during my time at this year’s Travelers Championship was the difference in the atmosphere. Perfect weather helps, especially when it comes to drawing decent crowds, but TPC River Highlands also possessed a buzz I hadn’t felt there in a while.

I remember covering the tournament for Golf World when J.J. Henry, a local guy who grew up in the same town I live in now, won in 2006. To say there was a smattering of fans on the hill right of the 18th green would be an overstatement – the place was dead. And the event itself was a few inches from extinction when Travelers jumped in as a title sponsor in ’07.

Things have gotten better each year, the fields a bit stronger, the galleries a lot thicker. “It’s perfect for the week after the U.S. Open, which is such a grind,” Hunter Mahan told me on the practice green last Wednesday. “They really go out of their way to make you feel like they’re happy you’re here.”

Very few Tour events revive themselves to a degree evident at the old Greater Hartford Open. The tournament used to draw huge crowds when Greg Norman was showing up in the mid-1990s, but it remains one of numerous Tour stops at which Woods has never played. In this part of the country, a lack of premium star power translates to a very difficult sale.

The Travelers did have 15 of the top 50 in attendance, six more than this week’s gathering at Congressional, which sort of blows my mind. You would think an exceptionally strong golf course and the Tiger connection would have the AT&T looking like Quail Hollow-mid-Atlantic, but that’s definitely not the case. If I wasn’t such a dunce, I’d swear some players go out of their way not to show up – a veiled response to Woods snubbing so many lesser tournaments over the years.

You can’t blame the latest lousy turnout on Fourth of July weekend, as was attempted in the past. Besides, the old Western Open consistently drew a bunch of big names on the holiday. For all the appreciation Tour pros have expressed in regard to Tiger’s impact on purse sizes and interest levels – for all the times players have told me the quality of the golf course absolutely does matter – none of that is registering at the AT&T.

Simply put, something’s wrong here.

MY MAN BUBBA Watson had a little meltdown Sunday afternoon. That triple bogey at River Highlands’ par-3 16th sent him from likely winner to sole possession of fourth place, the irony being that the blowup came on the same hole where he won his first Tour event – in a playoff over Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in 2010.

Are you shocked to learn that it was Watson’s first top-10 finish at a full-field, stroke-play event in 2013? It hasn’t been a very good year for a guy many expected to join the game’s elite after winning the 2012 Masters. I exercised caution after Bubba’s victory at Augusta National, theorizing that you can’t become great if you regularly finish outside the top 100 in putting, which has been the case five times in Watson’s seven full seasons.

Still, I expected Bubba to get in the Sunday hunt far more often than he has. His short game has been dreadful, perhaps because he doesn’t make enough putts, a trait that obviously negates the advantage he gains from his enormous distance off the tee. River Highlands favors long hitters as much as any course on the schedule, and if power is an asset at many venues, the ability to get up and down never fails to travel.

Wish we could say the same about Tour pros to suburban D.C.