This weekend for the first time golf fans will get a glimpse of what a major championship would have looked like if Earl Woods had placed a tennis racquet in his sons hand instead of a 9 iron.
The 137th British Open Championship, being held at historic Royal Birkdale for the ninth time, is upon us and for the first time since the 1996 PGA Championship one of golf's four major tournaments will be held without Tiger Woods, who is sitting out the remainder of the season to rehab his damaged knee. To many golf fans, Tiger's absence has relegated this weekend's Open to junior varsity status.
Anyone who dares win this week should be scoffed at and duly punished with an asterisk next to his name on the trophy. After all, without Tiger what is the point? Doesn't everyone else on the PGA Tour serve simply as mere objects for Tiger to casually brush aside on his inevitable march towards history? Doesn't every tournament without him suddenly contain about as much appeal as spam?
Many casual fans think so. Their apathy toward everything in golf non-Tiger is reflected in the TV Ratings which more than double when he is playing or in contention. The true golf fan however should not be turned off by the fact that Tiger is not in the field this weekend. No player, no matter how talented they are, or no matter how big of a shadow they cast will ever be bigger than the game itself.
While Tiger's absence creates a void that will definitely be felt, there are still plenty of reasons why golf fans should view this weekend as more than a chance to brush up on their channel-flipping skills.
The first and most important reason being that this is after all still The British Open. It's not like we're talking about The John Deere Classic here. The Open got along quite nicely without Tiger Woods for 124 years and I am sure it will be fine whenever he decides to call it a career. While it may lack the beauty and grace of The Masters or the brutal difficulty of The U.S. Open, The British Open is historic and charming in ways neither can match. Many of the centuries-old towns and golf courses used for The Open are overflowing with both history and tradition. Royal Birkdale is certainly no exception. The golf course, stationed in the seaside resort town of Southport on England's northwest coast, was constructed in 1922 (brand new by Open standards) and has enough history sweeping through its trademark sand dunes to satisfy anyone's appetite. This is the site where Peter Thompson won the first and last of his five Open championships. It is where Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino each captured their first Open and where Tom Watson won his last, capping off his remarkable run of five in eight years.
Over time, Birkdale has also proven to be one of the most difficult as well as exciting courses in The British Open rotation. At 7,113 yards, Birkdale is not terribly long, but it makes up for that with its tight fairways as well as its strategically-placed bunkers and out-of-bounds markers which put a premium on the golfer who can most accurately drive his ball. The ever-present wind, which howls off the nearby Irish Sea, also helps wreck havoc to even the best player's game.
The second thing that many fans are overlooking this weekend is the tremendous opportunity that has been provided to finally find a long awaited challenger to Tiger. Instead of lamenting on who isn't going to be at Royal Birkdale this weekend, fans should be focusing instead on who will be there.
Without Tiger in the field the way has been paved for a number of talented young players such as Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, or Anthony Kim to break through and win their first major. With the confidence that only winning can provide it is quite possible that one or more of these players could emerge and provide Tiger with the type of worthy adversary that he has lacked thus far in his career. While it ha been tremendous to see Tiger win all of the Majors that he has won it would be made that much better if there were another player nipping at his heels every step of the way, even stealing the occasional major from Tiger every now and then. Throughout his career Tiger has been without a true back-and-forth rivalry like Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan vs. Sam Snead. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els have all taken their shot at providing Tiger with some company at the top, but neither of them has put forth a sustained challenge, and with Els and Mickelson both in their late 30s and Singh turning 46 this year one wonders if they ever will. More than likely, if a serious foe for the second half of Tiger's career is to emerge it will more than likely come from that large crop of 20-somethings.
Of the group, Sergio Garcia probably has the best chance to win this week. The runner-up to Padraig Harrington last year at Carnoustie, Garcia has had a tremendous track record at the British Open finishing in the top five each of the last three years. Garcia, who has acknowledged that he wants to win The Open more than any other tournament, might be the best ball striker in golf-including Tiger- and if his putter is on, which is always one of the biggest if's in golf, he could very well walk away with the win that so painfully eluded him a year ago.
Another young player considered to be a strong contender this week is Justin Rose who is looking to become the first Englishman since Nick Faldo in 1992 to win The British Open. Rose dazzled the fans at Royal Birkdale in 1998 when, as a 17-year-old amateur, he took home a fourth place finish in The Open which included a miraculous hole-out for birdie at the 18th. Rose quickly turned pro after the tournament and was hailed as the next great English golfing hope, the one who would take the torch from Faldo and be England's answer to Tiger Woods. It took Rose, who was initially burdened by the immense expectations, nearly six years to win his first tournament and since then he has climbed all the way to 9th in the world rankings and is finally beginning to show flashes of becoming the player that so many people envisioned. Rose finished in the top five at both the Masters and The U.S. Open in 2007 and coming back to a course that holds a lot of positive memories could be just what he needs to capture his first major title.
Out of all of the young players who will teeing it up at Royal Birkdale this weekend perhaps the most intriguing is young Anthony Kim. The 22-year-old American is reminiscent of a young Tiger Woods in both swing and demeanor. He has already given us a glimpse as to what he is capable of with his dominating victory at The Wachovia Championship in May as well as his electrifying come-from-behind win at the AT&T National two weeks ago. Kim seemingly has all of the tools to win a good deal of major championships; all he needs is that one breakthrough performance.
However, Kim might have to wait until next month's PGA Championship to get his chance. This week will be the first time in Kim's 22 years that he plays on a links-style golf course. Links golf courses have little-to-no trees which allows the wind to play a much bigger factor and requires the player to have a much lower ball-flight than at most American golf courses with their predominantly tree-lined fairways. It is a style of golf that takes some getting used to and is usually not kind to those who are experiencing it for the first time.
Even without the main attraction, this weekend's British Open still promises to be quite a show. With Tiger out of the picture there are possibly 30-40 golfers that have a realistic chance to win this championship including several young phenomenon's that could possibly rise up and provide Tiger with a challenge when he returns. Combine that with a demanding golf course that hasn't hosted an Open in 10 years and that most of today's players have never set foot on before this week and it should make for a very intriguing Open Championship full of possibilities.
So fear not golf fans, everything will be okay. Tiger will eventually return, but in the meantime sit back and enjoy what promises to be a dramatic tournament played out on a historic venue. I know I will.