Aronimink gears up for Tiger's AT&T National tournament, hopefully more

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Tiger Woods addresses the media yesterday at Congressional Country Club.

BETHESDA, Md. - This time next year, Aronimink Golf Club will have gussied itself up for its 2-year audition.

Tiger Woods will move his AT & T National tournament from Congressional Country Club outside of Washington to Aronimink for the next 2 years while Congressional prepares to host the 2011 U.S. Open.

Congressional, site of the first three AT&T Nationals, will host the AT & T again in 2012, '13 and '14, and, said Woods, "in perpetuity" in the D.C. area, if he has his way (though its return to Congressional barely passed a membership vote).

In the meantime, the people at the jewel in Newtown Square hope to impress the PGA and the USGA at Tiger's summertime tournament. They hope to impress them enough to become a contender for their PGA Championship and the U.S. Open.

"It certainly has been the goal at this club to attract a major. The world will be watching," said Dick Naumann, Aronimink's general manager. "Including the folks from the USGA and the PGA."

Aronimink has hosted just one event involving the best players in the world, when Gary Player won the 1962 PGA Championship. It also hosted the 1977 U.S. Amateur, the 1992 U.S. Junior Amateur and the 2003 Senior PGA Championship.

How the course plays for Tiger's 120 guests the next 2 years will go far in determining its candidacy to host a major. Sean O'Hair, a West Chester resident who frequently plays at Aronimink, believes his peers will love it.

"Aronimink is a great place for a PGA Championship, and maybe even a U.S. Open in the future. It's got a great feel to it. It looks nice . . . but it is nice. It's old school. It's very traditional," O'Hair said.

Perhaps the tour could use more of that.

"Once they complete the changes, I think there's going to be a lot of positive reinforcement from the players," O'Hair said.

The most important reinforcement would come from the planet's most famous athlete. If Woods endorses it as a contender to host a major, that would carry plenty of weight.

Of course, he'd have to visit it first.

He has only heard about it. He has listened to endorsements from O'Hair and from Trevor Immelman and from AT & T tournament director and Tiger Woods Foundation president Greg McLaughlin, who played the course 2 weeks ago, his sixth visit to the venue.

Again, McLaughlin raved to Woods about the course. McLaughlin is confident the layout and the conditions will meet with Woods' approval. Only the toughest courses suit Tiger's appetite.

Woods already was sold on its history - how it opened in 1928 as a Donald Ross masterpiece and has hosted majors at every level. It took this to draw Woods to Philadelphia, where he hasn't played since he turned pro in 1996. Not that he had much reason to do so.

The PGA Tour last had a stop in the area in 2002, the short-lived SEI Pennsylvania Classic at Waynesborough Country Club, but lack of marquee names withered that competition.

Woods doesn't need to see or play Aronimink, McLaughlin said. Woods knows Aronimink consistently is a top-100 club in the country. He knows the place has teeth. He knows that Philadelphia is the fifth-largest market in the country.

"Aronimink is one of the toughest golf courses there is," Woods said yesterday, in his press conference leading up to this week's tournament at Congressional. "Philly is a huge market, and for us to go there, it certainly helps us in how we can raise funds to benefit a lot of the kids. I think the area of Philadelphia will certainly embrace us in what we're trying to do and how many people we can help there in that community."

His name helped sell Aronimink's membership on the intrusion that is the PGA Tour. The members will endure erection of tents, bleachers and temporary buildings for 2 months before the tournament.

His name will be on the lips of the expected 1,000 people at the club's Fourth of July festivities Saturday as they confer with the two dozen Aronimink representatives who will shuttle between the clubs this weekend, learning the way a Tiger tourney is run.

His name - his foundation's name, actually - will be all over the Philadelphia region. As soon as this weekend's tournament finishes, its offices will move to Aronimink for a 2-year stay. That will be the least of the changes.

PGA Tour officials visited the club in December and declared it fit to host the AT&T with no changes, Naumann said, but the club isn't satisfied with just hosting the AT & T.

This winter it replaced the sand in its bunkers and checked their drainage systems. It already has added championship tees to the par-4 No. 2 and the par-3 No. 5. The par-5 No. 9, formerly 556 yards from the back tees, now plays more than 600 yards, uphill - a three-shot hole, even for the tour's bombers. O'Hair needed a good drive and a solid fairway wood to get within 100 yards of the pin.

O'Hair said the club will add 20 yards to the par-4 No. 18, too, turning a tasty birdie chance into a tight, bunkered, 460-yard, risk-reward finisher.

"That's going to make it a completely different hole," O'Hair said.

It will be a significantly different course.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it," O'Hair said. "I know a lot of the people in Philadelphia will be, too. It's going to be fantastic. I'm excited to be a part of it, where I live."

Next year, it will be Philadelphia-area kids benefiting from the Tiger Woods Foundation. The foundation, according to its annual report, raised more than $2 million at the 2008 AT & T and awarded grants to more than 50 youth organizations in the D.C. area.

Next year, it will be Philadelphia-area fans and as many as 1,500 volunteers watching Woods and Camilo Villegas and K.J. Choi and Jim Furyk practice on the Tuesday before the Wednesday pro-am. McLaughlin said the AT & T might cap attendance near 30,000 per day if ticket sales get out of hand.

Furyk has suspended his annual 1-day Exelon Challenge event to avoid competing with Woods for local sponsors. Which makes sense.

Next year, and the year after, will be Tiger time in the Philadelphia area.

Aronimink hopes it is just the beginning of even bigger things. *