NEWTON SQUARE, Pa. – The most obvious change at the AT&T National is moving to Aronimink Golf Club, a tree-lined classic in the Philadelphia suburbs that will host the tournament the next two years as Congressional prepares for a U.S. Open.
Not so obvious is the role Tiger Woods is playing this week.
He is still the defending champion. He is no longer the host.
AT&T was the second corporate sponsor to end its endorsement deal with the world’s No. 1 player, although not entirely. It agreed to remain as title sponsor of the tournament, which Woods has hosted since it began in 2007. And the net proceeds continue to benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation, which is building a second learning center in the United States.
It’s an awkward relationship.
Woods no longer carries the AT&T logo on his golf bag, and he is not likely to return to AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But he doesn’t look at this event any differently than when he was handing out the trophy.
“I’ll still be part of the event and working hard behind the scenes as always,” Woods said. “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.”
The tournament stays. His endorsement ends.
“If you’re going to have one over the other, you choose it this way,” Woods said.
He also dismissed any notion that Woods and his caddie, Steve Williams, are at odds. There was speculation in some corners after the U.S. Open that Woods was unhappy with his caddie when he said, “We made three mental mistakes. The only thing it cost us was a chance to win the U.S. Open.”
Woods and Williams have worked together since 1999, with the most famous blowup coming in the final round of the 2003 Masters when Williams recommended a driver off the par-4 third hole. Woods hit into the trees, had to play a left-handed shot to the fairway and the two rarely spoke the rest of the day.
“There’s no tension there, not at all,” Woods said. “You guys are reading way too much into it. I was asked what happened out there, and I made three mental mistakes – three mistakes I don’t normally make. Do Stevie and I make mistakes on the golf course? Of course we do. We’re not perfect. We made mistakes at the wrong time. It happens.
“Hopefully, that won’t happen this week and we can win an event.”
This could be a big week toward deciphering whether Woods is close to winning again. He tied for fourth in the Masters, his first start in five months while coping with a sex scandal, then followed that up by going consecutive weeks without earning a check.
He tied for fourth at the U.S. Open, where he started the final round at 1-under 212 and closed with a 75 to finish four shots behind. But it was the back-nine 31 on Saturday, which put him into contention, that gave Woods hope.
“That was a nice step in the right direction, because I would play two or three good holes, then hit a bad shot and it would take the air out of what I had built,” Woods said. “During that stretch, I put together about 12 really good holes, and it’s something I hadn’t done all year. Granted, the amount of rounds I’ve played so far this year is about what I normally play through March.
“I’m starting to head in the right direction.”
He headed out to the practice range and to see the Aronimink for the first time. When he was at the course in May, it was the day after he withdrew from The Players Championship with a sore neck.
The field is slightly better than a year ago. It includes Jim Furyk, Aronimink member Sean O’Hair, Dustin Johnson, Vijay Singh, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Robert Allenby and Scott Verplank.
Several others are in Europe to fulfill membership requirements – seven asked for conflicting-event releases – and tournament officials are finding that the Fourth of July date is not what it used to be.
Even so, it has Woods, who remains a star attraction. Even for a Tuesday, thousands of fans were pressed up against the iron fence around the driving range waiting for him to arrive. Hundreds of kids want his autograph, and Woods was asked if takes seriously his position as a role model given his marital turmoil.
“I certainly have made mistakes, no doubt about that,” Woods said. “I take full ownership of them, and I think what a lot of kids can learn from that is that you’re not always going to go through life perfect. No one does. When you make a mistake, step up to the plate and take ownership of it.”