BETHESDA, Md. – Eight of the top 10 players in the world are in the field, and the venue is the challenging Blue Course at the posh Congressional Country Club, home of U.S. Opens past and future.
This year, for a change, the Booz Allen Classic has everything you’d want in a major – except Tiger Woods.
“Coming back brings back memories of a major championship,” said Phil Mickelson, who played in the U.S. Open here in 1997 and plans to do so again six years from now. “Coming here in 2011 is exciting for us. Everyone is excited to be here, and it does feel like a major.”
Major enough to attract players such as Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who never played this event when it was at the much-maligned TPC at Avenel, located about a mile down the road. Garcia bypassed Jack Nicklaus’ farewell appearance at the Memorial last week so he could focus on coming here to experience the tight fairways, thick rough, small greens and the diabolical signature No. 17 downslope approach shot to a hard-to-hit peninsula.
“What a back nine we have here. It’s amazing,” Garcia said after Wednesday’s pro-am. “I remember watching in ‘97. I wanted to come and play Congressional. It was a good opportunity to play a course with so much history. I didn’t want to take the chance of missing this week.”
Ditto Retief Goosen, who will try to defend his U.S. Open title next week in Pinehurst, N.C.
“I think the guys would like to play this type of golf course more often,” said Goosen, also making his Booz Allen debut. “I think this is a true test of your golf. You really cannot get away with any bad part of your game around here.”
The course and the calendar have made for a rare confluence of circumstances for a tournament that usually struggles to attract big names. The Booz Allen has historically been known for producing first-time winners from second-tier fields.
“There’s probably a half-dozen to a dozen guys who usually don’t play the week before a major who are playing this week because of where it is,” Chris DiMarco said. “It’s a great test for next week.”
Woods is the notable exception. Even the temptation of Congressional wasn’t enough to get him to break his long-standing routine of taking the week off before a major. David Toms is the other top-10 player not in the field.
Booz Allen received permission to play at Congressional this year to give the PGA Tour time to renovate Avenel, but no work has been done and none will be done by the time the event returns there next year. That has not been a welcome development for Booz Allen Hamilton chairman Ralph Shrader, who must decide next year whether he wants his company to continue sponsoring the tournament.
Shrader and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem met Tuesday night to discuss the matter, with Finchem outlining a possible timetable for renovations after the 2006 tournament.
“I believe the tour has operated in good faith with us to try to arrive at a plan to deal with the concerns that we’ve addressed,” Shrader said.
The only top player who might prefer to be at Avenel is Adam Scott, who won last year’s tournament by four strokes. Scott has the strange sensation of defending a title on a course he has never played.
“It would have been nice to go back to Avenel,” Scott said. “But this is a great course, a great field. It’s going to be a tough week to defend the title.”
The more fitting defending champion – the defending Congressional champion, actually – is Ernie Els, who won his second U.S. Open title in 1997.
“I was 27, and it seems like just yesterday,” Els said. “I remember a lot of shots I made, and when I made the putt at 18, it’s probably the most emotion I’ve ever shown.”
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