BETHESDA, Md. –– The AT&T National will begin Thursday at Congressional Country Club.
But already the tournament is missing two of its biggest stars.
Tiger Woods, the defending champion and tournament host, withdrew last week citing a strained left elbow (read about his prognosis here). Then on Monday, U.S. Open champion Justin Rose announced he was withdrawing in order to rest following a busy last couple weeks.
But last year’s runner-up Bo Van Pelt is back. Last week’s winner Ken Duke is in the field, too. And so are Adam Scott, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler.
Despite the absence of Rose and Woods being limited to a spectating role, there was plenty of buzz Wednesday as players geared up for the first round.
Here are 5 Things you need to know from Wednesday at the AT&T National:
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1. OPEN HAPPINESS: Ken Duke: lover of country music, NASCAR and, of course, Coca-Cola.
So after Duke’s first PGA Tour victory Sunday at the Travelers Championship, Duke’s caddie, Chris Carpenter, opened the bag and pulled out a bottle of Duke’s beverage of choice.
“A lot of people that know me know that’s what I drink,” said Duke, 44, who defeated Chris Stroud in a two-hole playoff at TPC River Highlands.
After Duke ended his final round and waited for the final two groups to finish, Carpenter slipped a Coke form the clubhouse into Duke’s bag.
“(We) joked around the last few years (that) if I ever win, I’m going to have a bottle or a can of Coke and take a drink out of it because we’re big NASCAR fans and you see that on NASCAR,” Duke said.
Only he didn’t drink it.
Instead, just as the television broadcast went off, Duke shook up his bottle of Coke and “just sprayed it everywhere.”
“I wish I’d had another one,” Duke said. “I would have done that, too.”
Duke said he’s had a lot of people reach out to him in support. He’s gotten text messages from former NBA star Charles Barkley, Miami Heat guard Ray Allen and several country-music stars, including Colt Ford and member of Rascal Flatts. While touring the Capitol Building, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas recognized him.
And that doesn’t even include the words of congratulations he’s gotten from his peers on the PGA Tour.
“It feels great just to kind of feel like I’m in,” Duke said. “That’s one thing I told my wife that I wanted to do before my career is over is to win a Tour event.”
Being a winner on the PGA Tour hasn’t quite sunken in, though. In addition to winning, Duke also got a pretty nice paycheck, a spot in the Masters and a two-year exemption on Tour. It’s the latter that has Duke the most excited.
“That is a big relief,” said Duke, who lost his Tour card in 2009 and had to spend two seasons playing mostly Web.com Tour events.
Now that his spot on Tour is secure for at least a couple more years, Duke, a goal-setter by nature, is now focused on trying to have fun on the course.
“My caddie’s been on me so much,” said Duke, who tees off of hole No. 10 at 7:39 a.m. Thursday alongside Nick Watney and Billy Horschel. “(He’s been saying), ‘Just free it up, Pro.’ . . . It will help us both to just relax more and say, you know, it’s OK to go at this pin or go at this par-5. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it because you know that you have that job security.”
So crack open another ice-cold Coke because Ken Duke will be here a while.
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2. U.S. OPEN FEEL: It’s been two years since Congressional hosted the 2011 U.S. Open, but it hasn’t lost many teeth since then.
“It kind of feels like a U.S. Open again,” Jason Day said. “It’s got some length to it, and the rough is pretty dense out there.”
Said Bo Van Pelt: “If you’d had played here two weeks ago, you probably could have had a U.S. Open if you wanted to.”
The par-71, 7,569-yard course is definitely long. And while the rough doesn’t quite measure up to U.S. Open extremes, the lush grass cut at about three inches will no doubt penalize those who stray from the fairway.
“I would like it to be one of the more difficult PGA Tour events, there’s no doubt,” Tiger Woods said. “This golf course lends itself to that.
Here’s a look at where Congressional ranked among the toughest course last season on the PGA Tour:
• It ranked first in longest proximity to the hole inside of 100 yards from both the fairway and the rough at 21 feet, 2 inches, and 33 feet, 6 inches, respectively.
• Congressional was also tops in lowest birdie percentage from the rough (7.92 percent).
• If players miss the green, they’ll have a tough time scrambling to save par. Congressional ranked first in longest scrambling proximity to the hole (11 feet, 2 inches).
• Aside from last year’s major-tournament stops at Olympic Club and Riviera, Congressional was the toughest course on Tour with an average over/under of 2.046.
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3. BO IS BACK: A couple of bad holes were all that stood between Bo Van Pelt and a victory at last year’s AT&T National.
Van Pelt was tied with Tiger Woods through 15 holes in the final round. But a bogey at the par-5 16th after a poor chip shot and another at the par-4 17th after hitting his approach way long helped hand Woods a two-shot win.
“That one (close call) was probably the hardest (to take) from the standpoint of how well I played,” said Van Pelt, who has one victory on Tour but also three runner-up finishes and six third-place performances.
“I caught a tough lie there on (No.) 16 and then on (No.) 17 . . . I was playing for a flyer. It just flew pretty extreme.”
Now a year later and Van Pelt is ready for another chance at victory. And there’s a good chance he might get it, too. Since 2007, Van Pelt hasn’t missed a cut at AT&T and has notched four top-15s, including his runner-up effort last year.
Although Congressional didn’t host the event for two of those years as it prepared for the 2011 U.S. Open, Van Pelt still can draw several memories from the course, including qualifying for his first Open Championship in a 36-hole qualifier in 2004.
“I think that was the first time I ever played it and just fell in love,” Van Pelt said. “It’s always been a pretty good venue for me.”
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4. AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE: Adam Scott and Jason Day couldn’t be more pleased with their grouping for the first two rounds.
Scott, Day and fellow Australian Marc Leishman will play together. They are scheduled to tee off at 12:27 p.m. Thursday.
“I enjoy playing with my fellow countrymen and I enjoy playing with buddies,” said Day, who has known Scott since he was 15 and played amateur events against Leishman.
Said Scott: “Absolutely looking forward to that. It’s almost like going and having a game at home with your mates.”
Scott, who recorded his first major victory at this year’s Masters, hasn’t finished better than T-13 in three starts since putting on the green jacket. He was T-45 at the U.S. Open at Merion.
“After the U.S. Open, I feel a (good) result is needed, just some kind of result to keep the confidence high and move over to Europe feeling like I’m ready to compete,” Scott said.
Day won’t be able to record his first major victory his week, but he can get his second career PGA Tour win and first of this season. He has made 17 cuts in a row, including tying for second at the U.S. Open at Merion.
That’s not the only close call for Day at a major, though. He also finished runner-up to Rory McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open here at Congressional.
“I think that sets up nice,” Day said.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Hunter Mahan is making his sixth appearance at the AT&T National. In his previous five starts, he has a runner-up finish, in 2009, and has finished worse than T-12 just once. . . . Amateur Steven Fox has missed the cut in all seven PGA Tour events he has played this season. . . . Rickie Fowler has played the AT&T National twice before. He was T-13 in 2011 and missed the cut in 2010.