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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 13, 2008

Without Tiger, there's no clear Open favorite

By Doug Ferguson
Associated Press


When: Thursday through Sunday

Site: Royal Birkdale

The course: It did not host the British Open until 1954, but since then, only St. Andrews has been used more. The club was founded in 1889, and the current layout was designed in 1922 by Fred Hawtree with help from J.H. Taylor. In an era of playing through sand dunes that led to blind shots, the approach at Birkdale was to route the layout through valleys between the dunes. This allowed for flatter fairways, giving it the reputation as among the most fair of links courses.

Length: 7,173 yards

Par: 34-3670

Playoff format: Four holes, Nos. 15-18, stroke play.

Purse: 4.2 million pounds ($8.236 million).

Winner's share: 750,000 pounds ($1.487 million).

Defending champion: Padraig Harrington.

Last year: Harrington ended Europe's eight-year drought without a major by closing with a 67 at Carnoustie to make up a six-shot deficit against Sergio Garcia and defeat the Spaniard in a playoff. Harrington twice hit into Barry Burn on the 18th and made a 6-foot putt for double bogey. Garcia bogeyed the last hole to fall into a playoff, and Harrington seized control with a birdie on the first hole. He became the first Irishman to win a major since Fred Daly in 1947.

Last time at Royal Birkdale: Mark O'Meara closed with a 68 and defeated Brian Watts in a four-hole playoff in 1998. Tiger Woods birdied three of his last four holes to finish one shot out of a playoff. Justin Rose, a 17-year-old amateur, tied for fourth.

Open champions at Royal Birkdale: Peter Thomson (1954, 1965), Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O'Meara (1998).

Key statistic: Because of the exchange rate, the major that once had the smallest purse now has the largest.

Noteworthy: This is the first British Open without Tiger Woods since Turnberry in 1994.

Quoteworthy: "Tiger not being there has got to be a small relief." Rod Pampling.

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Royal Birkdale has a reputation as the fairest of all links courses in the British Open rotation.

Its fairways have been shaped alongside the picturesque sand dunes of the Lancashire coast in England, instead of going through them, which eliminates most of the blind shots and reduces the number of quirky bounces that so often define this style of golf.

Now, another element of equity has been added for this British Open, perhaps the most significant.

Tiger Woods won't be there when it begins Thursday.

Eight days after his epic playoff victory in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the world's No. 1 player had reconstructive surgery on his left knee and will not play the rest of the year.

"It's not just an opportunity for me," Justin Rose said, "it's an opportunity for 155 other guys."

Woods doesn't win them all, but it is rare when his name is not on the leaderboard of a major on the back nine Sunday afternoon. He already has captured 14 majors second only to the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus and perhaps even more intimidating is that Woods has 25 finishes in the top five at majors, a staggering rate of 54 percent.

Winning the 137th edition of golf's oldest championship still comes with a claret jug, not an asterisk. Even so, the fresh wind off the Irish Sea now carries the kind of optimism not felt since Woods was an amateur.

"The door is a little more wide open than it has been in the past because Tiger is not playing," Colin Montgomerie said.

Not since the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla has a major been played without Woods. Not since 1994 at Turnberry has Woods not competed at the British Open.

In some respects, the Open has never been more open.

Steve Stricker was the 36-hole leader at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open, the only major where Woods missed the cut. He recalls playing that weekend with a small sense of relief that he wouldn't see one name on the leaderboard.

"I enjoy paying attention to him when he plays, to see if he can do it again," Stricker said. "We're watching history all the time. It's amazing what he's done. But when you don't have to worry about him, that's good. Because if you're in contention and he's there, it's going to be more difficult to win. He doesn't throw away many opportunities."

But does that make it any easier to win the silver claret jug?

Not in the least.

Royal Birkdale is the latest English links course to join the rotation, a club that waited until 1954 to host the British Open. Since then, however, it has held the Open more than any other course except for St. Andrews.

This is where Arnold Palmer won his first claret jug, slashing out of trouble on the 16th hole with a 6-iron worthy of a commemorative plaque. Peter Thomson and Tom Watson both won the last of their five Open championships at Birkdale. The last time the British Open was held on these links, in 1998, Mark O'Meara and Brian Watts finished at even-par 280 before O'Meara won in a four-hole playoff.

Woods was there, making birdie on three of his last four holes to miss the playoff by one shot.

The question now is what will it be like without him.

"Tiger would be the first to agree that the Open is bigger than any one player, and I'm sure we can look forward to another memorable week at Birkdale," Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said. "Funny enough, I sense some excitement. It's sad that he won't be there. But now I think people wonder who's it going to be?"

At the moment, all anyone knows is who it won't be.

Woods was a 5-to-2 favorite by one British bookmaker after he won the U.S. Open for his ninth victory in his last 12 starts. After he announced he would be out the rest of the season, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia were installed as co-favorites at 12-to-1.

Those are the players who have the most to gain by Woods' absence, for no other reason than having lost to Woods so often.

"Any of the top-10 players have got some scar tissue from Tiger," Rod Pampling said. "And they'll feel a bit of relief that he's not there. Look, you still have to post the lowest score. But for sure, they'll be more confident than they normally are. Tiger not being there has got to be a small relief."