Not Exactly Groundhog Day


2010 AT&T NationalNEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – On paper and billboard the 2010 AT&T National has a “Groundhog Day” look to it. Same festive date on the docket. Same simple branding. Even a familiar defending champion.

Nothing, however, is as it seems in suburban Philly, and the events post-Nov. 27 are only partially, if at all, to blame. This is a different golf course, a different tournament and a much-different Tiger Woods.

Twelve months ago sprawling Congressional was filled with military pomp and Woods was brimming with confidence having broken out of his post-knee surgery funk with a commanding victory at the Memorial.

Now roll the TiVo ahead a calendar. In many ways Woods’ confidence seems as elusive as that 18th major now does, and the grounds at Aronimink Golf Club, although storied, are missing the patriotic panache that defined Congressional.

But the real proof that the mighty tournament that once could has reached a curious crossroads rests on the tee sheet. Thursday’s opening lineup will included two of the top 10 players in the World Ranking, and just three of the top 20.

The first three editions of the AT&T National drew strangely pedestrian fields, but this week’s lineup looks more Bob Hope Classic than hopeful.

There are no shortage of reasons of why players pass on the AT&T – a holiday weekend many would rather spend with family and fireworks back home and a spot on the schedule less than a fortnight removed from the British Open are the most commonly held notions.

An unknown golf course for this year’s event (and 2011) and Woods’ diminished role with the tournament, when AT&T cut endorsement ties with Woods following revelations of his serial infidelity he also stepped down as the tournament’s host, have likely also added to a wanting marquee.

But make no mistake, Woods’ duties this week go far beyond 9-irons and game faces. He alluded to as much on Tuesday, saying, “I'll still be part of the event and working hard behind the scenes as always. This is a great event for our foundation. We're very lucky and very excited that AT&T wanted to still be a part of this event, which is great.”

On Wednesday Tour commissioner Tim Finchem seemed to echo that notion, harkening back to the event’s early days when the circuit filled the gap left by a second-tier Washington, D.C., stop with Tiger’s AT&T National.

“When Tiger offered us the opportunity to work with him on a tournament it created an opportunity. We’re excited about it,” Finchem said.

Note the tense. The commish is a lawyer and former political wonk, and neither occupation is prone to misplaced bullishness. Lean economic times has the Tour working hard to plug the leaks. Finchem even went so far on Wednesday to acknowledge the “c” word – contraction – if things don’t come around for the likes of Hilton Head and others.

But when it came to the future of AT&T National, a future that took a drastic turn when the check writer cut bait with the host, Finchem was downright buoyant.

“(AT&T is) committed to what the foundation stands for and to the PGA Tour,” he said. “We have a long, very positive relationship with AT&T.”

But then Finchem’s words seemed to fall on largely unheralded ears on Wednesday. Missing in action were most Europeans, back home preparing for St. Andrews, and even with a limited 120-player field officials had dipped further down the priority list than one would imagine necessary for an event with so much potential.

Tour players large and small all hold to the simple notion that scheduling choices are made based on the quality of a golf course, and nothing else. But then AT&T National seems the strange exception to the rule. Congressional was a championship venue by any measure and Aronimink Golf Club, although unseen on Tour for five decades, was enjoying largely rave reviews from the AT&T field.

In this case location, location, location has more to do with a spot on the calendar than a spot on the map.

Tour talk suggests AT&T National officials are eyeing a new date on the schedule the week before The Players Championship. It’s a spot currently held by the Quail Hollow Championship which may not survive past 2014 as the club zealously pursues a major championship.

AT&T National’s predicament goes beyond “flex scheduling” and “designated tournaments,” stop-gap measures the Tour is mulling to improve events with historically weak fields.

AT&T, which has flipped the bill for a blockbuster but has gotten largely “B” list, deserve better. Woods deserves better.

“Tiger paid for most of these guy’s second homes. If he didn’t add a zero to the left of the decimal (in a player’s earnings) he added at least half a zero,” said one Tour player. “You would think they would owe him something.”