Walk towards the Royal Birkdale course and you pass banners welcoming the world to the 2008 Open Championship that show Tiger Woods mid-swing.
Walk outside the fairway ropes and you will hear his name mentioned in snatches of conversation. Walk into the press tent and his colleagues will be paying homage to his name.
Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods: he is here this week, even when he is not.
The world number one has been out of the game for almost a month now, recuperating from surgery to his knee, having ended his season with an injury after his epic victory at the US Open at Torrey Pines, and latest reports are that professional golf continues as a going concern — but only just, if some of the breathless analysis of Woods’s long-term absence is to be believed.
What cannot be denied is that television ratings for the game in the US will be down and the sponsors who have invested in the Tiger Woods brand will have to wait a little longer for their return.
Less understandable and forgivable has been the rush in some quarters to argue that a victory this week will be devalued by Woods’s absence, that Sunday’s winner might go down as the ”asterisk champion”.
”Does the trophy engraver know how to do an asterisk?” joked Geoff Ogilvy when asked about the impact of Woods’s absence on the week ahead. ”He adds to every tournament he plays in. But the Open is the Open. If any tournament is strong enough to stand up when he is not around it is this one.”
Ernie Els also paid homage to the player who, time and again, has stood between him and Major championship victory, suggesting that the atmosphere around the course felt ”very different” because Woods was not around.
But, like Ogilvy, he preferred to make light of the subject. ”I am not overly disappointed he is not around — as a player,” he said, smiling. ”But this is the first Major he has missed since he turned professional and it feels different. We are going to miss him.”
The South African’s good humour was not universal. Phil Mickelson was less inclined to treat the subject as a joke — indeed, he was not inclined to answer questions about Woods at all — and there was a succession of players, led by Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, both highly fancied this week, who were quick to argue that no man is bigger than the game.
”There is always some impact when Tiger doesn’t play in a tournament,” said the Australian Scott, ranked number three in the world. ”But that is less of a factor in a Major than it would be in a regular tour event. The Majors are so big in their own right. It certainly won’t make any difference to me. I know it won’t make the Open any easier to win. There are still going to be some guys playing great come Sunday.”
Garcia was even more insistent in arguing against the notion that the 2008 Open will be remembered not for the fact of Sunday’s outcome, but that Woods was at home in Florida recovering from his knee injury.
”If it happened that I never played golf again, or if Tiger never played golf again, the Open will still be played and that is the most important thing,” the Spaniard said. ”Nobody is bigger than the tournament, even if he is a great player.”
If it was possible to detect a note of irritation in Garcia’s answer, then it was easy to understand why he might find the implication that an Open without Woods is a devalued Open. After all, the world number one was not in contention last year — he finished in 11th place. Yet Carnoustie will go down as one of the more thrilling Major championships in recent memory.
Meanwhile, on a purely practical level, it seems as if the world number one’s absence has had little impact on the commercial aspects of this week’s tournament. Advance ticket sales are at record levels, according to the R&A (organiser of the Open Championship) while the practice day attendance figures are up on last year. It is the same story in nearby Southport, where the hotels are at capacity and visitors’ enthusiasm for the Open seems unbridled.
”I don’t think you can come to the golf just to watch one person,” said Steve Swann, who had made the short trip from Europe’s city of culture, Liverpool.
”Myself and my friends would only ever see Tiger for a couple of holes anyway — the crowds are too big with his matches. In golfing terms the competition is better and more wide open because he is not here and the crowds in general will not drop much. You still have the world’s top players here, all of whom can win, which makes it a great spectacle.” —