More players shine in Tiger's absence

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - As far as William Hill is concerned, all bets are off.

At least when it comes to Tiger Woods and the U.S. Open.

Not long after Woods decided to sit out the next major and rest his ailing left leg, the British bookmaker announced Tuesday it was refunding all wagers that had been placed on Woods at Congressional.

The joint favorites now are Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson at 12-to-1. One of them is No. 1 in the world, the other one used to be No. 1 and the third is the most talented player of that bunch, with four majors and five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open.

"Without him," Hill spokesman Rupert Adams said of Woods, "the field looks very open."

Golf has looked like that just about every week over the last 18 months, even when Woods was playing.

There was some concern going into the start of the 2010 season - when Woods disappeared to try to repair a personal life that was in shambles - that golf was in deep trouble without its biggest star. But dating to his last win in November 2009 at the Australian Masters, a new generation of players is starting to emerge.

Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open last year, setting off a streak of four first-time major champions. Rory McIlroy won at Quail Hollow last year with a 62 in the final round, just two days before he turned 21. Matteo Manassero won his second European Tour event two days before his 18th birthday.

If not for being impatient at Pebble Beach and unaware he was in a bunker at Whistling Straits, 26-year-old Dustin Johnson might have won two majors last year. Martin Kaymer won the PGA Championship at 25 and became the youngest player since Woods to be No. 1 in the world. Bubba Watson has won three times on the PGA Tour in the last year. Rickie Fowler was the first PGA Tour rookie to play in the Ryder Cup, where he birdied the last four holes.

The list is long.

And maybe the absence of Woods - if not from the game, from his game - has something to do with that.

Jim Furyk took exception to the notion that this latest crop of talent has more good players than the previous generation. Furyk came along in the era of Mickelson, Westwood, Ernie Els, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Darren Clarke. Not until they won majors or became No. 1 in the world did they get the same amount of attention as this generation because every conversation started with Tiger Woods.

As for what seems to be greater parity in golf?

"We've always had it," Furyk said. "Take Tiger out of there, and it was an open ball game. If he doesn't win 14 majors, it's an open ball game. And now that he hasn't been playing, it's wide open."

Imagine if Woods had never climbed down from a high chair and started swinging a golf club.

Donald joined some exclusive company when he won at Wentworth to become only the 15th player to be No. 1 in the 25 years of the world ranking. To put the achievement into perspective, 62 players have won majors since the world ranking began in April 1986.

That number is skewed, of course, because Woods has hogged the top spot for nearly 12 years. If not for Woods, turnover in the world ranking would not be unusual, and the hype over No. 1 might not have been so great.

Among those who would have been No. 1 if Woods were not around - Mickelson, Furyk, Colin Montgomerie, Davis Love III, Steve Stricker, Sergio Garcia and Mark O'Meara.

"It's funny how people quickly categorize a player for winning one, two or three tournaments as a great player," O'Meara said. "I don't get that. I won 16 times, and I think I'm a good player, I've had a wonderful career for me. Where do you draw the line?"

Stewart Cink has been in Woods' shadow since he was a teenager. He recalls one year being at a junior tournament, and when his round was over, he noticed his mother headed back onto the golf course because she wanted to watch Woods.

"Maybe he's won so many tournaments that there were less available to win," Cink said. "He was definitely the lightning rod of golf, and still is for different reasons. I think he set the standard higher, so that Jim, me or anyone in our age group, if we had the same career and you take away Tiger, we might have got more respect than we got."

It looks as though a new generation is ready to take over because Woods is not around. Had his personal life and health crumbled five years ago, there might have been just as many players ready to thrive.

Remember, there was a time when Montgomerie said what made the majors so difficult to win is that Woods usually won two of them, Els, Singh and Mickelson captured another and that left only one major for everyone else.

Ten players have won the last 10 majors.

Three players have been No. 1 in the world over the last two months.

"It seems like there's a huge transition going on, only because No. 1 is wide open," Curtis Strange said. "We're going to have that until Tiger comes back. There will be a revolving door for No. 1 in the world. But if Tiger came back tomorrow and played like he used to - or not even as good as he used to - he'd dominate this game. Will he do that? I don't know."

There were questions whether Woods could get his game back when he was playing. It's even tougher to answer when he's not.


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