By Doug Ferguson
ABOVE PHOTO: Tiger Woods hits from the bunker to the eighth green during a Pro-Am for the AT&T National golf tournament at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., Wednesday, June 30.
(AP Photo/Rob Carr)
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Tiger Woods’ tee shot was headed for the front pin when it turned hard to the left and settled at the back left corner of the par-3 fifth green at Aronimink Golf Club.
“That’ll work out well for one of these days,” caddie Steve Williams told him. “Just not this one.”
They shared a quick laugh and walked off the tee box, resuming the pro-am round Wednesday at the AT&T National. Woods is the defending champion, yet he is somewhat in the dark.
His game remains a mystery.
The tournament falls between two of the biggest events on his golfing calendar — the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the British Open at St. Andrews, his favorite golf course in the world. Woods tied for fourth at the U.S. Open with a spotty performance. He matched a tournament-low 66 in the third round to get into contention, only to close with a 75.
Even so, it was his best week since he tied for fourth at the Masters.
“Things are starting to come around, which is nice to see,” Woods said. “It’s just a matter of getting more and more consistent with what I’m working on and putting together better rounds.”
Another mystery is the course.
The AT&T National, where Woods no longer is the official host, is taking a two-year hiatus from Congressional Country Club, which is preparing to host the U.S. Open next year.
It found a welcome vacation home in Aronimink, which originally was designed by Donald Ross and once hosted premier championships. This is where Gary Player won his first PGA Championship in 1962, by one shot over Bob Goalby.
Aronimink was supposed to hold the PGA Championship in 1993 until the Shoal Creek episode led the PGA of America to demand its golf courses have minority members. Aronimink, which had an all-white membership, gave up the chance to host another major. It did not have a black member until 1998, and now the club says it has multiple minority and female members.
It is a course with sharp changes in elevation and bends in the fairways, relatively large greens and minimal water. It is not a classic Ross course from redesigns over the years, yet it has a storied history.
And while the rough has been minimal on the PGA Tour this year, especially with the shallow grooves now required, this rough is nearly as thick as players found two weeks ago at Pebble Beach.
“I’m probably taken back by its difficulty,” said Jim Furyk, who played junior golf in the Philadelphia area. “I think it’s a very tough golf course. It’s tough to get the ball in the fairways. They’re pitched at a lot of angles. You have to work the ball well off the tee. The greens are very big, but are cut up into smaller sections. There’s a lot of slope, a lot of undulation, and they’re already quite firm.”
Walking down the fairway on the 605-yard ninth hole, Woods wondered aloud what kind of score it would take to win. The forecast is for sunshine throughout the week, and without wind, any course is vulnerable. He also noticed, however, that the greens already were firm enough for the ball to bounce instead of sticking where it lands.
“This is a golf course that has hosted major championships,” Woods said. “There’s no reason we can’t play it tough.”
More than the course, the AT&T National marks a return to the Philadelphia area for the first time since 2002, the final year of the short-lived Pennsylvania Classic held that year at Waynesborough Country Club. Based on the gallery earlier in the week, and the crowd that gathered around tee boxes and greens for Woods’ pro-am group, they are expecting a big week.
“We have great confidence it’s going to be a very successful event,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “We’re back here next year, and after that, we’ll look for opportunities. But certainly, this is a market we’d like to play longer term.
Woods won last year at Congressional with a 13-under 267, outlasting Anthony Kim in the final group and holding off a late charge from Hunter Mahan. Neither of them are here this week, as Kim recovers from thumb surgery and Mahan withdrew.
It is not nearly as strong a field as some other events, such as the Memorial or Quail Hollow Championship, as the European Tour returns to the continent and players gear up for the British Open.
Even so, it has attracted Furyk and Dustin Johnson, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, Lucas Glover and Sean O’Hair, who makes his home in the Philadelphia area and recently joined Aronimink.
While he no longer is the host, Woods still took part in the opening ceremonies, which featured Bon Jovi. He says he is still working hard “behind the scenes,” as proceeds benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation.
Most of the work, however, is on his game.
He has played only 17 rounds on the PGA Tour this year, not returning to competition until the Masters after five months of coping with the fallout from extramarital affairs. He has only two top 10s, both coming in the majors. He has posted consecutive rounds in the 60s only once this year, at the Memorial, where he was never a factor.
The circumstances have changed, but this is the longest stretch Woods has gone without winning at the start of a season since 2002.