Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In Kim, the next generation prevails at AT&T National

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Anthony Kim, 23, earned his second career PGA Tour victory Sunday at the second annual AT&T National Hosted by Tiger Woods. Kim shot a final round of 5-under-par 65 to finish with a four-day total of minus-12 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.
A new superstar with the attitude to match was born this weekend at the AT&T National, the PGA Tour event held at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

But the major headline of the second-annual tournament, hosted by Tiger Woods, was the lack of, well, Tiger Woods.

It wasn’t the same at Congressional without one of the most famous men on the planet, not to mention the top-ranked player in the world. After winning the U.S. Open last month, he was shut down for the remainder of 2008, requiring surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee. Consequently, he wasn’t in attendance for the event he originated, much to the chagrin of his massive legion of fans.

‘‘They call this the Tiger Woods Golf Tournament – what do they call it now, The Golf Tournament?” said Jolene Straub, 45, a Rockville resident who took her two sons to Congressional on Saturday and Sunday. ‘‘I don’t know too much about all this – my boys told me he wouldn’t be here. But it’s like, it would have been nice if he came and watched, you know? I just wanted to see him.”

The die-hards that showed up on Sunday were treated to the wave of the future in Anthony Kim, a 23-year-old phenom whose 5-under-par round of 65 brought him to 12-under for the tournament, wrapping up his second PGA Tour victory of the year and of his brief two-year career. In May, he shot 16-under to win the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, N.C.

Kim is Korean-American – last year’s AT&T National winner, K.J. Choi, is South Korean.

About the only thing more apparent than Kim’s talent – he struck the ball long and putted to perfection on Sunday, was his wardrobe. The Los Angeles native showed off some L.A. fashion for his final round, wearing an unbuttoned pink Nike polo shirt, patent white pants, and glistening white shoes. Then there was the kicker, a white belt with his ‘‘A.K.” initials outlined in oversized crystals.

If Woods is golf’s Michael Jordan, Kim may become the sport’s Kanye West – talent, style and swagger personified. He even has his own clothing line.

‘‘It was a lot of karats – a big bag of karats,” said Kim, who held off second-place Fredrik Jacobson by two strokes. ‘‘L of A sent me this on Wednesday and I’ve been saving it for Sunday, so it’s worked out good. I guess everybody saw the belt.”

Of course, many more would have seen it had it not been for Tiger’s absence and the ominous weather predictions – as opposed to the picturesque sun that shined over the course on the final day a year ago. They were the two major reasons attendance was down 23 percent from the tournament’s debut a year ago when the total turnout was 139,389 for the four days of play. Last year, 37,211 spectators filled the galleries at Congressional to watch K.J. Choi win the inaugural AT&T National on the final day – 29,867 were in attendance at this year’s final round Sunday. The tournament drew 107,120 spectators during the four days.

Despite the dip in attendance, plenty of golf fans came bright and early to watch the final day of the AT&T National.

The Bailey family of Frederick showed up extra early Sunday morning to make the 8 o’clock tee off.

‘‘Dad is a huge golf fan and this was his birthday present,” said Peter Bailey. The three men were not going to let the threat of rain ruin a full day of golf.

Added Patrick Bailey: ‘‘A little rain never hurt anyone. We’ve been following Rocco [Mediate]’s crowd around for a while.”

After Kim, the man of the tournament just may have been Mediate, the U.S. Open runner-up, who played with the same nervous energy and pizzazz that hallmarked one of the classic duels in professional golf history. Last month, 21,558 fans packed Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego for the 18-hole-tiebreaker round between the 45-year-old Mediate and Woods, a record for a Monday playoff. It was the quintessential David-versus-Goliath pairing, with Mediate playing the role of overwhelming underdog to perfection.

Though he lost to Woods in sudden death on the 19th hole of day, there was an obvious residual effect, as Mediate’s gallery on the final day at Congressional was the largest and most boisterous, despite teeing off at 8:11 a.m. in the second-earliest pairing and not being in contention. Fans shouting ‘‘Rocc-O, Rocc-O” were not disappointed, as their hero shot 4-under par on Sunday and 6-under for the tournament, finishing tied for 18th.

Asked if he’s reveling in his new popularity, the self-deprecating, 23rd-year pro quipped, ‘‘Losing was the best thing to ever happen to me.”

‘‘It’s cool, it’s neat, it’s different,” said Mediate. ‘‘It’s what you really want, it makes you play harder. It’s just been an unbelievable trip.”

Fans also came out to see local golfers like Takoma Park’s Fred Funk (tied for 63rd) and first-round leader Steve Marino (tied for 24th) of Fairfax, Va.