Claret Jug
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Monday, January 23, 2012

SOUTHPORT, England — Here's what players have said about the 137th British Open Championship this week:

Sergio Garcia said, "With all due respect, the Open is bigger than any of us, even Tiger Woods."

Lee Westwood said, "It's bigger than any one golfer."

Geoff Ogilvy said, "If any tournaments can stand up strong when he's not around, it's this one and the U.S. Open and the Masters and the PGA. I mean the events are bigger than any one guy."

Methinks the pros doth protest too much.

We're not talking about "one guy." We're talking about Woods, who beat the boys on one good leg last month; who is to golfers what Jason and Freddy are to coeds; who by dint of some weird Jedi-like power can hole key putts of up to 66 feet (U.S. Open) and even iron shots (2000 AT&T).

Should the name of this week's champion be engraved on the claret jug with an asterisk? No. An asterisk is not sufficient. Woods has won 14 majors in 46 starts, which means he's batting .300, which means he is almost as integral to major championship golf as grass, oxygen and an extra trip to the loo 10 minutes before tee time.

The British Open is a major; Tiger's absence is the story.

This Open will be devalued in the history books because you can't subtract the greatest player the game has ever seen and have a victory mean the same thing. The same goes for next month's PGA. Woods is not "one golfer" or "one guy," and that's why the cliche players have adopted this week, that a major is bigger than any single player, does not hold up. Not even close.

Woods does not win every week, but players almost always feel his presence because he's almost always in contention. We've known this for a while, but only lately has it been proven and quantified. Jennifer Brown of Berkeley analyzed data from tournaments from 2002 to '06, more than 20,000 player-rounds, and found that a Tour pro will take an average of one more stroke per tournament Woods plays compared to the ones he doesn't.

When the world No. 1 is especially hot (as he was before season-ending knee surgery last month) Brown found the effect was even more pronounced, about two strokes higher per player per tournament. When he's been in a slump, the effect has been negligible.

Why is that? Slate.comsurmised it's because "expected losers are more likely to quit." Maybe players don't survey the course as studiously or beat as many balls in the weeks when Tiger plays.

It could also be that Woods drives them to distraction, or intimidation, or envy, whatever. It doesn't really matter. Tiger's effect on the field is real, and you can see it everywhere from Berkeley to Birkdale, where Ogilvy gave a tellingly contorted, non-denial denial earlier this week:

"When I'm playing and I see him on the leaderboard, it doesn't make me play any better or any worse," Ogilvy said. "I think it just makes me do what I'm doing-well, I don't think it does. I don't think, oh, there's Tiger, I'd better-oh, I have to play better now to win. It's, there's Tiger on the leaderboard.

"I mean, the pressure that he puts on you is you know he's going to play well," he continued. "I don't think I've ever had a situation where I've played worse because he's on the leaderboard. Would I have played better if he was on the leaderboard? I don't think it affects the way I play."

Got that? Ogilvy continued, but you get the point.

Woods is the boogeyman, or the bogeyman, a presence even if he's miles away on the other side of the course.

His absence reverberates well beyond this week, and will in fact call for several asterisks. Phil Mickelson could go on an epic run and seize the top ranking from Woods, which would be such a lame victory you wonder if even Phil would want it.

Woods won't have enough competitive rounds to win the Vardon Trophy. He'll quite possibly be passed on the 2008 money list. Someone else will win the FedEx Cup. And before all of that happens, someone will conquer Birkdale and the expected 25-30 mph winds this week.

Good for that guy, whoever he may be. Just make sure to engrave his name in hollow letters and don't forget the asterisk, which should be printed in a special-issue, Sans-Tiger typeface: Extra bold, and the size of a gorse bush.

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