Local players shut out of AT&T National -- Gazette.Net


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The immaculate mansion that is the Congressional Country Club clubhouse will play host to many visitors this week for the AT&T National. There will be the army of workers and rules officials, the players invited for the PGA Tour event in Bethesda, maybe a lucky fan or two.

But there will be no Cinderella making visits to the locker room, no local pro to capture hearts amid the throngs of spectators.

The AT&T is an invitation-only event, and for the sixth consecutive year an offer to stack up with the game’s finest has not been extended to any local players.

“I would love an opportunity to play in it,” said Ryan Fitzmeyer, who has tried his hand in several U.S. Open qualifiers. “Absolutely. It kind of sucks that I can’t play in a PGA event that’s so close.”

Many tournaments that don’t have major title implications, and even one that does — the U.S. Open — will have a local qualifier for a few spots in the field. The Booz Allen Classic, which has been held at both Congressional and TPC at Avanel in neighboring Potomac, featured a qualifier for the last couple spots to give the locals a shot at the big leagues.

“Anytime a local pro is in the field it’s going to draw a big crowd following them around,” Fitzmeyer said. “But this is Tiger Woods, he can control the field. It’s the AT&T Invitational.”

The magic of an underdog is one of the finest aspects of the Open, the most democratic event on the Tour. Anybody with a handicap below two and $125 to spend on an entrance fee has a shot, albeit a long one, at making it into the field.

Seventeen-year-old Beau Hossler, who will be playing in the AT&T this weekend, became the darling of the Tour as he matched up toe-to-toe with Woods at this past U.S. Open, standing tall as the former demigod of golf crumbled. Hossler, an amateur who will be a senior at Santa Margarita High School in Orange County, Calif., next year, made it to the game’s biggest stage by passing through two qualifiers — same as he did for last year’s Open as a 16-year-old at Congressional, becoming the first high-schooler since 1951 to qualify for consecutive U.S. Opens.

The kid became a gallery favorite, tapping in to standing ovations on every hole during the final round.

“That was pretty special because you got roaring crowds and everything and really got the major championship feel,” Hossler said.

It’s those sorts of dreamlike stories that will be missing from the AT&T luster. The zeal of an area underdog defying monstrous odds, the hometown hero that everybody can root for, is absent once more.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t [invite local pros,]” said Kevin Dean, an assistant pro at Hampshire Greens in Silver Spring. “A little bit has to do with sponsors and field size so it varies from tournament to tournament.”

The 120-man field in the AT&T is relatively small compared to most tournaments, which are typically anywhere between 130-144 players and can go up to 156 depending on the time of year and how much daylight there is to work with. Greg McLaughlin, the president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation, has a keener interest in up-and-coming amateurs rather than local pros.

“We have had a big commitment around amateurs,” he said at the media day press conference on May 21. “We have had past U.S. Amateur Champions, NCAA Champions, as well, so we are very proud to have Kelly Kraft, who won the U.S. Am last year playing, as well as Patrick Cantlay, who was the runner up in the U.S. Amateur who is also the low amateur here at the U.S. Open and was also low amateur at the Masters this year; as well as Jordan Spieth.”

As proven by Hossler’s surreal and inspiring performance two weekends ago in the U.S,. Open, amateurs can capture a crowd as well as anyone. But there is still that one part missing, that Tin Cup type of player with an entire community on his back.

As Fitzmeyer put it, the AT&T has “no Open aspect to it.”

tmewhirter@gazette.net