- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

This week’s British Open requires no asterisk.

While it’s true that any event loses a few style points without 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, the 137th Open Championship will be judged on the merits of Sunday’s protagonists, not Thursday’s pairing sheet.

“With all due respect, the Open is bigger than any of us, even Tiger Woods,” said Sergio Garcia, this week’s favorite at Royal Birkdale. “If I happen to never play golf again or Tiger happens to never play golf again, the Open will still be played.”

Tiger wasn’t a factor at any of the most entertaining British Opens in the last decade. Woods was several shots removed from the unforgettable cinema verite starring Jean Van de Velde and the Barry Burn in 1999 at Carnoustie. He wasn’t on the leader board for the three-man tussle at Troon in 2004. The trio responsible for that drama was Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and unheralded hybrid hero Todd Hamilton. And Woods was absent when Carnoustie delivered last year’s thrilling encore featuring Garcia, Els, Padraig Harrington and Andres Romero.

Still, the media assembled at Royal Birkdale (7,173 yards, par 70) this week has tried to turn Woods’ absence into a full-blown identity crisis for the game’s oldest and most venerable event.

“I just hope they’ve taught the engraver how to put an asterisk on the trophy,” Australian Geoff Ogilvy said. “Then everyone will know what the tournament was all about.”

Perhaps the asterisk belongs on Woods’ British Open resume. Although Woods has snagged three claret jugs, two of those triumphs came at St. Andrews. Woods is 1-for-9 on the more conventional rota courses, his lone uprising away from the Old Course coming at Hoylake in 2006.

This isn’t to say Woods couldn’t or wouldn’t have won at Birkdale. After all, he finished third at the Southport links in 1998. But compared with his pro winning percentages at the PGA Championship (.364), Masters (.333) and U.S. Open (.250), Woods has looked almost human in his British Open starts away from power-friendly St. Andrews (.111).

However, Woods’ absence eases the psychological stress his presence creates for the rest of the field.

“I think the thought of him around is quite ominous, especially coming down the stretch or even preparing yourself for a last round when he’s in the mix,” said Els, who collected his third major title at Muirfield in 2002 and has notched six top-five finishes in the last eight British Opens. “There’s definitely a thought of him in your mind all the time…. I’m not overly disappointed that he’s not here as a player.”

For most ardent golf fans, the only sure antidote for post-Tiger depression is drama. Before this week’s injury-based absence, Woods had made 46 consecutive major starts. He was a serious factor in 25 of those majors, meaning he entered the final round with a legitimate shot at victory. A good percentage of those 21 other events qualified as riveting, even without Woods.

If this week’s Open deserves an asterisk - and most majors do - it will be due to a lousy swing, dicey setup, stretch-run swoon or brainlock moment. The 1999 British Open, for instance, qualified in all four categories. Regardless of the reason, however, players on the property and in the crucible will provide the asterisk, not a guy in Orlando, Fla., on crutches.

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