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Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Tiger's tourney will gain instant respect

By Jason Sobel
ESPN.com

Exactly one month ago, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem stood at a podium with Jack Vickers, tournament founder of The International, and announced that after 21 years the event would be canceled, leaving a fracture in the current schedule for the Fourth of July weekend. Since then, the prevalent question has been: Now what?

It was disclosed last week that a new tournament, to be based in Washington, D.C., and sponsored by the Tiger Woods Foundation, would fill that gap. And on Wednesday, more details were revealed, as we continued piecing together the clues to what could become one of the more prominent annual regular-season events.

The event officially will be known on the PGA Tour schedule as the AT&T National. But make no mistake -- this is Tiger's Tournament.

With this designation comes plenty of clout, as tour events these days are categorized simply by with or without -- those with Woods in the field (and there likely will be only 16-18 such tournaments this year, including majors and World Golf events) are considered more prestigious and successful, as other top players follow suit, TV ratings increase and there is generally greater interest; those without Woods lack the star appeal he carries and flounder in comparison.

Tiger Woods
Woods will serve as host for the AT&T National each year.
This latest announcement is a no-brainer, win-win proposition for the tour. Not only did it fill a gaping hole in its schedule but it did so with its most-prized possession stamping his name on the event, giving it instant respectability.

Consider it another in a recent line of shrewd moves by Finchem. His FedEx Cup format, in which players will compete during the season for inclusion in a four-event playoff series that culminates in a $10 million champion, has been panned widely by critics for its hackneyed role in proclaiming a "winner" of the PGA Tour season. But it certainly beats the alternative -- a previous autumn schedule that offered little excitement and faded from the forefront of fans' consciousness during Major League Baseball playoffs and the beginning of the NFL season. And the new schedule has allowed for The Players Championship to move to May, giving the tour a headlining event in each month of the season.

Now the tour has replaced a fringe tournament -- The International was known more for its quirky Modified Stableford scoring format and long-distance drives in the thin Rocky Mountain air than anything else -- with one that should command a modicum of renown within golf's inner circles.

Although Woods might not compete in this year's tournament -- wife Elin reportedly is due to give birth to their first child in early July -- he most certainly will become a major player in future editions of the event. It automatically vaults the AT&T National into one of the upper-echelon events on the schedule, but perhaps more importantly cements Tiger's place among the legends of golf. At 31, Woods already owns 55 career PGA Tour victories and 12 major championship titles; now he joins Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only living golfers to play host to their own tour events.

"This is a dream come true for myself," Woods said at a news conference Wednesday. "I remember back when I first came on tour and was able to play events and we started our foundation in 1997, my focus and my goal one day with my father one day was to be able to host an event on the PGA Tour. This is a pretty momentous day for us because we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to do that. I just wish my father could have been here to see it."

Of course, there are still some pretty major details that need to be ironed out. For instance: Where will this year's tournament take place? Finchem revealed that the tour's first choice is Congressional Country Club, site of two previous U.S. Open championships (Ernie Els won in 1997, Ken Venturi in '64), host of seven Kemper Opens (1980-86) and an interim venue for the Booz Allen Classic in 2005.

A vote will be taken at Congressional in coming weeks as to whether it will play host to the event. If the motion passes, the tour will be coming to a proven venue for at least the next two years; if it fails, other alternatives includes TPC Avenel in Potomac, Md., and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas, Va.

Just in case Tiger's presence and the promise of an old-style, challenging course aren't enough to make the AT&T totally fan-friendly, the tournament also will offer free admission to any person currently serving active military duty and all children under 12.

Those sounds you hear coming from Colorado are the folks at the now-defunct International collectively cringing at the thought of such a potentially successful undertaking taking the place of their event. In his announcement one month ago, Vickers said, "We have one outstanding, unbelievable player in the form of Tiger Woods today, and when he's playing, the ratings are great. And when he isn't playing, the ratings aren't so hot."

It's utterly ironic that The International was canceled, in part, because it couldn't encourage Woods to show up since 1999. Here's guessing the folks in Denver will watch the new tournament in D.C. with a bittersweet taste in their mouths, but it's proof once more that Tiger Woods wields plenty of power on the PGA Tour.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com