Phil Mickelson tied for fifth at the Masters.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Thursday, May 01, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Thousands of fans screamed as if they were at a rock concert a year ago as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan made their way to the first tee on the most anticipated pro-am of the year of the PGA Tour.

On Wednesday, things were much quieter at Quail Hollow Club. Jordan was on his way to the Kentucky Derby, a day after hiring Larry Brown to coach his Charlotte Bobcats. Woods, meanwhile, was home rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee.

Thursday's start to the Wachovia Championship marks the beginning of life with Tiger on the shelf. It's the first time in three years on the PGA Tour that a golfer isn't around to defend his title the next year.

"Without a doubt there's a huge void when he's not here," Masters champion Trevor Immelman said Wednesday.

With Woods also to miss The Players Championship next week, the next two events means strong fields will duke it out without the world's No. 1 golfer getting all the attention.

"This one he usually does play and he would have defended here, I'm sure," said Adam Scott, who won last week's Byron Nelson Championship. "But I think the strength of the field for this event does offset it a little bit."

Phil Mickelson, armed with a new putter, will play his first tournament since the Masters. Last year's runner up, Steve Stricker, is here. So is 2006 champion Jim Furyk, 2005 winner Vijay Singh and Rory Sabbatini. In all, 18 of the world's top 25 will play after Lee Westwood withdrew on Wednesday.

It was here a year ago when the Woods-Sabbatini feud was revved up.

Before the final round, Sabbatini said he was looking forward to being paired with Woods in the final round. Woods shot a 3-under 69 to win the tournament, while Sabbatini shot 74 and finished tied for third.

A week later, Sabbatini said Woods looked "beatable as ever." Woods responded by noting he had as many wins in 2007 as Sabbatini had in his career.

Sabbatini's been hearing it from the galleries ever since.

"There were a couple of times I wanted to bury a few clubs in a couple of people," Sabbatini said. "Now you just have to realize that, you know what, half of them are drunk and the other half - everyone is entitled to their opinion."

While Sabbatini hopes for a better audience to play in front of, Mickelson is hoping a longer putter will improve his short game.

He said his recent fitness routine, which included extensive stretching, has caused him to grow up to an inch. It's why he switched to a 35-inch putter from a 33 1/2-inch model.

"I spent two weeks working on it and trying to get it dialed in," Mickelson said. "I putted great today. I thought I hit a lot of good putts, and I'm excited."

Immelman remained busy this week, shooting a magazine cover at a nearby course, his life forever changed after winning at Augusta. But Immelman acknowledged all the interviews, the autograph signing and travel has affected him. He missed the cut last week in his first event since winning the green jacket.

"I think my mind has probably just slipped from my game at this point," Immelman said. "It's something I'm addressing and something I'm hoping to fix as soon as possible."

Immelman was a victim of statistically the PGA Tour's toughest closing three holes at Quail Hollow in 2006. Immelman needed only to two-putt from 50 feet to win. His three-putt put him in a playoff, won by Jim Furyk.

The 7,442-yard, par-72 layout has a different look this year. The two-tiered rough his shorter and the greens were supposed to be much faster. Three inches of rain on Monday left groundskeepers scrambling Wednesday to harden the greens.

"If we get favorable conditions for the rest of the week and no more rain, I think the course on Saturday and Sunday could be playing extremely fast," Sabbatini said.

It could set up a wild finish to see who will replace Woods as tournament champion.

"Fortunately it's a short timeout. It's only four to six weeks," Mickelson said of Woods' rehab. "When you have surgery like that, often it can be a lot longer. So we're fortunate it's not longer than it is."

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