NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Location isn’t always everything when it comes to attracting a strong field.
It’s as much about the calendar.
The AT&T National gets under way Thursday, and it appears to have everything in its favor. For the second straight year, it is being played at Aronimink Golf Club, a course so highly regarded that there is reason to hope for a major. It is located about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, one of America’s top sports town with an affinity for golf.
About all that’s missing are some of the top players.
For the first time since this tournament began at Congressional in 2007, it doesn’t have a single player from among the top 10 in the world ranking. Part of that is because Tiger Woods – the former host whose foundation still benefits from the charity dollars – is no longer in the top 10 or even playing at the moment.
But there are other reasons, most of which have to do with the time of the year.
The Fourth of July weekend was a big hit outside Chicago when the old Western Open was played. It was the biggest event between the U.S. Open and the British Open, and a tournament that most PGA Tour players entered. Then again, that was when PGA Tour players ruled the world ranking. Now it has a distinctive European flavor, not only at the top but throughout the top 50.
Most of them are either playing the French Open this week, or taking a week off before the Scottish Open, the final tune-up before the third major of the year. Bubba Watson decided to go to France, too, which was only strange in that he said he planned to return home before going back to the British Open.
That leads to another question: What constitutes a strong field?
The ultimate measure is the world ranking, and the AT&T National (along with the French Open) will be assigned points once the tournament starts on Thursday. This tournament has nine of the top 50 in the world. Considering that it’s a PGA Tour event, the AT&T National at least can boast 27 of the top 50 from the FedEx Cup standings.
And of the 25 players who have won tour events this year, 11 of them are at Aronimink.
Then again, is a ranking more important than appeal when it comes to selling tickets? Is it more attractive to have a player from the top 50 in the world, such as Ben Crane or Brandt Snedeker, or a three-time major champion like Vijay Singh? Anthony Kim is barely on any list the way he’s been playing, but his appeal is likely greater than someone like John Rollins.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he looks at fields differently from the public, and he used star power as an example.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘How much does a player who finishes 125th on the money list earn outside of official money?’ It depends on who the player is,” Finchem said. “If Freddie Couples was 125th, it would be a very different thing than a lot of other players. So those things move the needle in terms of your interest among the media, enthusiasm of the television announcers, how the fans are going to react to it, how tickets are sold.
“All those things are affected by a range of players, not just the players who happen to be in the top 20 or top 30 or top 50 in the world ranking. So we look at it different ways.”
The AT&T National has a short history of strong winners—Choi and Kim when it was at Congressional, Justin Rose last year at Aronimink, giving him two wins in three starts.
Among those outside the top 50 is one who is sure to attract a decent crowd. That would be Sean O’Hair, who makes his home in the Philadelphia and joined Aronimink a few years ago. He was getting plenty of club and hometown support during the pro-am, despite his gaffe at the Red Sox-Phillies game Tuesday night, when he threw out the first pitch and was just a little bit off target.
“I think I hit the camera guy right in the head,” O’Hair said. “The worst thing about it, I didn’t even ask how he was doing. I was so nervous. But it was fun to be there. I wish I would have thrown a little bit better pitch, but it’s not what I do for a living.”
O’Hair is trying to get his golf game back together, as is Jim Furyk, who is slipping into a deep slump in the year after he won the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize. Furyk, who grew up closer to the other side of Pennsylvania, has only two top 10s this year, and both those were a tie for ninth. He has missed the cut in his last three starts, the first time that’s happened since the end of the 2004 season when he was recovering from a wrist injury.
Furyk has been around long enough to understand that ranking and form can go in cycles. Even though there are only nine Americans among the top 20 in the world, he is not pessimistic about the future.
“I think if you look at the under 30s, you look at Hunter Mahan, you look at Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler … I’ll take those four,” he said. “You pick four players under 30 from any other region, I’ll take my four, and I’ll be quite happy with where my money goes.”