Tournament slow to take flight without Tiger Woods

Ben Nuckols, Associated Press

Potomac, Md. — Tiger Woods’ extended absence from golf isn’t being felt just on the course.

Woods can bring excitement to a tournament even if he isn’t playing, as he’s shown over the years at the Quicken Loans National, which he hosts. This year, Woods will miss the trophy presentations at both of the PGA Tour events that benefit his foundation.

He skipped the Genesis Open at Riviera in February because of his injured back, and now he’s being treated at a clinic for his use of prescription drugs. The stint in treatment follows his arrest on a DUI charge in May during which he had several medications, but no alcohol, in his system, according to police in Jupiter, Florida.

The Quicken Loans National is doing its best to press on without him, but the buzz surrounding the event — which this year comes to TPC Potomac for the first time — has faded.

“We all would love for him to be here, but at the end of the day, for him to put his foot down and go ahead and take care of himself and try to get better, that’s more important than playing golf or being here for a golf tournament,” Patrick Reed said. “We all wish him the best and we want him out here, every one of us.”

Rickie Fowler, who has an endorsement deal with Quicken Loans, is the only player from the world’s top 10 in the field, and just two more are inside the top 20: Justin Thomas and Reed.

Fowler, one of the top draws in golf, has broken his fans’ hearts plenty this year. He won the Honda Classic in February but hasn’t shot better than 70 in a final round since March, wasting chances to win the Masters and the U.S. Open. He said he’s caught himself trying too hard.

“There’s probably been a few times where it hasn’t been exactly either the right mindset or potentially getting behind the eight ball early and pushing a little bit too much from there,” Fowler said, “instead of kind of letting things fall into place.”

This is the 11th edition of the Quicken Loans National, which launched with great fanfare in 2007. With Woods as the host, a field limited to 120 players and a storied Washington-area venue in Congressional Country Club, the event seemed destined to become a standout on the PGA Tour. It didn’t hurt that Woods presented the trophy to himself twice, in 2009 and 2012.

But reality eventually set in. With Congressional either unable or unwilling to host every year, the tournament has bounced among several courses. And its spot on the calendar — between the U.S. and British Opens — has caused many players to skip the event, either to rest between majors or to play in Europe.

Young Spanish star Jon Rahm got a sponsor’s exemption to make his pro debut last year at Congressional and tied for third. He’s not here this week, instead opting to play the French Open at the course that will host next year’s Ryder Cup.

“I didn’t have the luxury to have long-term goals at that point,” Rahm said Tuesday as he looked back on his anniversary of turning pro. “So I really had my mindset in the next six events I was able to play. I knew I had to play my best golf possible. They were really good events and I had to get a minimum amount of money to be able to get my tour card. I didn’t know my first event I was going to play that good.”

More than 100 players in the field have not yet qualified for the British Open, but that could change this week. The top four nonexempt players who finish among the top 12 will earn spots at Royal Birkdale.

TPC Potomac, a PGA Tour-owned property across the street from Congressional, last hosted a tour event in 2006. Players criticized the design and the conditioning when the tour first came to the course, then known as TPC Avenel, in the 1980s, with Greg Norman famously saying he wanted to “blow up” the 9th hole.

Following a major renovation and redesign from 2007-09, TPC Potomac has welcomed the PGA Tour Champions once and the Tour twice.

This week, the conditioning appears superb, with tight bentgrass fairways, thick rough and firm, bouncy greens. With little to no rain in the forecast, players are expecting a difficult week on the par-70 layout.

“It’s hard. You could 100 percent host a U.S. Open here, starting tomorrow,” Thomas said. “It’s not very often we play greens this firm on tour.”

Defending champion Billy Hurley III, a Washington-area native and Naval Academy graduate who lives in Annapolis, has perhaps more local knowledge at TPC Potomac than anyone in the field, and it’s not even his first choice.

“We certainly wish it was at Congressional because I finished first, fourth and eighth there, so there are courses for certain players and that’s one of mine,” Hurley said. “But this is a familiar place to me. I do practice and play out here when I’m home a good bit.

“Once I hit January and I win at Torrey Pines, everything changed again,” he said. “I got into all the WGCs and majors, so I had to reschedule everything around those tournaments.”