SANDWICH, England — Not long ago, Tiger Woods’s absence from a major would hang over the host venue like a big gray cloud. Remember Tiger’s 2008 hiatus, when he missed both the British Open and the PGA Championship? With all due respect to Padraig Harrington, who claimed both of those titles, those Tiger-less tournaments felt like Hooters Tour events. The fans at home weren’t engaged — the Sunday rating for that PGA was a piddly 3.0, a 55-percent plunge from the final round of the ’07 PGA — and the fans on site were denied the greatest show on turf. A major without Tiger was like a Stones show without Jagger.
Fast forward three years or so to an idyllic Friday afternoon at Royal St. George’s: sunny, low 70s, light breeze, an Open Championship under way.
And still no Tiger.
And yet ... something is different. Woods has now missed four of the last 13 majors, and the golf world, it seems, is growing accustomed to his absence. He doesn’t adorn the official championship program. Reporters have stopped asking other players about him. And the fans, well … no Tiger? No worries!
“I’m on the Rory train now,” said Michael Fox, 21, a student from Ellijay, Ga., who was strolling the grounds on Friday. Fox is on a study-abroad program at the University of Oxford with two of his college buddies, and neither of them seemed too broken up that they wouldn’t get a glimpse of Woods this week, either. Then again, one of those friends, Matthew McClure, hails from Augusta, Ga., so he’s had a few chances to see Woods play at a different major. Michael Fox, Matthew McClure and Paul Conners at Royal St. George's. Photo: Erick W. Rasco/SI Frank Burton, 71, who lives just up the road from St. George’s in Herne Bay, was watching the second round on one of the giant monitors set up next to the course.
“To be honest, we don’t care at all that Tiger’s not here,” Burton said.
He was seated with his friend, John Lilley, a table of empty pint glasses in front of them.
“A couple of weeks ago, when I found out that Tiger wouldn’t be here, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a shame,’ ” Lilley said. But he quickly got over it. He and Burton were marshals at St. George’s during the 2003 Open, so they got their Tiger fix then, he said. Frank Burton and John Lilley at Royal St. George's. Photo: Erick W. Rasco/SI Around the corner, dozens more fans were sipping Bollinger’s champagne under a red-and-white striped tent. Among them was Peter Sangstar, a retired insurance underwriter from East Sussex who was in attendance at the 2006 World Golf Championship outside London when Woods lapped the field to win by eight.
“Literally half an hour later, Tiger jumped on a helicopter and was gone,” said Sangstar, 67. “It would have been nice if he gave just a little more back to the fans.” David Gordon and Peter Sangstar at Royal St. George's. Photo: Erick W. Rasco/SI A couple of tables away, David Gayton, a 40-year-old funeral director at his fourth Open, was enjoying the afternoon with his wife, Liz, and their two kids. To them, it didn’t matter who was or wasn’t in the field.
“The Open’s only once a year,” David said, “so we’re going to make the most of it no matter what.” David and Liz Gayton with family at Royal St. George's. Photo: Erick W. Rasco