Bob Ford: Missing top talent prevented a good tournament from being a great tournament

Posted: July 04, 2011

Aronimink Golf Club's two-year audition in the professional golf spotlight took a final bow Sunday, well ahead of the forecast thunderstorms that bumped up the starting time for the fourth round of the AT&T National, but long after it became clear that this year's event was destined to lack the "extra" in extraordinary.

It wasn't the fault of the golf course, which rebounded to play fairly on Sunday after enduring a brutal Saturday beat-down, and it wasn't the fault of the local organizers who produced a crisp, efficient tournament.

And it certainly wasn't the fault of Nick Watney, a veteran tour pro who seems, at the age of 30, to have finally found his stride this season. Watney vaulted to 10th in the world rankings with the win on Sunday, holding off a challenge from playing partner K.J. Choi. Watney played a steady, no-bogey round to finish the tournament 13 under par and then declared, not surprisingly, that he likes Aronimink just fine.

Everyone likes Aronimink, and the Donald Ross masterpiece was at its glimmering best for the tournament. The only problem was that many of the desired guests sent regrets to the party. Mostly, it was a matter of timing. The big boys are using the lull before the British Open to grab a break, tune up their games elsewhere, or cross the pond early to acclimate themselves and take part in the Scottish Open next weekend.

With a better date, a deeper field, and a little more drama, the AT&T National could have been as good as its setting. As it was, however, only five of the top 30 golfers in the world rankings were on hand, and two of them went 1-2 at the finish and another was tied for third. Not much of a shock there.

It was a tournament that earned polite applause, but not whooping roars from the gallery. Had Tiger Woods, whose foundation is one beneficiary of the tournament, made his comeback from injury at Aronimink, that would have spiced things up. Had Generation Z heartthrob Rickie Fowler not tossed a 4 over into the punch bowl in the final round, that would have helped.

With a Sunday showdown of Tiger in red and Rickie in bright orange, trading birdies and rolling in putts, well, that would have worked, too.

But the locals didn't get that lucky, and they will have to settle with merely being good this time. It was all good. There were visits during the tournament from PGA of America and United States Golf Association officials, taking a look-see concerning the possibility of placing a major event at Aronimink, either the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open. The last major at Aronimink was the 1962 PGA.

If either of those events came here, it wouldn't be for nearly a decade, so the Aronimink folks would have plenty of time to implement plans for adding nearly 500 yards in length to the course, and tricking it up enough to make it major-worthy.

"I don't think there's much work to be done out here," Watney said. "I've heard they're looking to get a major, and if they pinch the fairways in and keep the greens firm . . . I think it would be great test."

He said that just before recounting his final birdie of the day, on the par-5 16th hole. Watney went driver, 7-iron, and two putts to go to 13-under and keep his lead over Choi at 2 strokes. The point is that, at a major event, the players do not hit 7-iron approaches to par-5 holes. It ain't that easy. Not to pick on the 16th, but it gave up 185 birdies and eagles during the tournament, and only 23 bogeys and double-bogeys.

Nevertheless, none of that was unexpected, and there were some holes that bit the golfers pretty hard, particularly the par-3 eighth hole and the par-4 10th. Ross drew up a beauty, to be sure, but he made sure it had a temper at times. If Aronimink does get a major, they'll work hard to make the course's disposition even surlier.

And so it goes for professional golf in the Philadelphia area for a while. The next tournament on the schedule is a great one, the 2013 U.S. Open at renovated and lengthened Merion. Otherwise, there isn't much to anticipate. It is rumored that the women keep playing down at the Shore every year, but that's difficult to substantiate.

Aronimink had its two years of excitement - as a stand-in while another course hosted a major - and now the wait begins for something more permanent, something even bigger further down the road.

Everyone who played this time said nice things, and then they shook hands and rolled out the gates and down the road to somewhere else. Watney said the nicest things of all, as you would expect. The golfers who didn't make the trip to Newtown Square had the loudest say, unfortunately, and attendance for the four days of tournament play was off 23 percent from a year ago. Two words on that one: Tiger Woods.

It was a good week, though, even if just a dress rehearsal. The course was forgiving - after cutdown day there were 88 par or below-par rounds, 64 over-par rounds - and that helped the field, which was populated by players often in need of forgiveness.

If the rehearsal went well enough, the leading men and not the understudies will be here next time. This was nice, but that would be really nice.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at philly.com/postpatterns

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