SOUTHPORT, England -- Royal Birkdale has a reputation as the fairest of all links courses in the British Open rotation.
Its fairways have been shaped alongside the picturesque sand dunes of the Lancashire coast in England, instead of going through them, which eliminates most of the blind shots and reduces the number quirky bounces that so often define this style of golf.
Now, another element of equity has been added for this British Open, perhaps the most significant.
Tiger Woods wont be there when it begins Thursday.
Eight days after his epic playoff victory in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the worlds No. 1 player had reconstructive surgery on his left knee and will not play the rest of the year.
Its not just an opportunity for me, Justin Rose said, its an opportunity for 155 other guys.
Woods doesnt win them all, but it is rare when his name is not on the leaderboard of a major on the back nine Sunday afternoon. He already has captured 14 majors'second only to the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus'and perhaps even more intimidating is that Woods has 25 finishes in the top five at majors, a staggering rate of 54 percent.
Winning the 137th edition of golfs oldest championship still comes with a claret jug, not an asterisk. Even so, the fresh wind off the Irish Sea now carries the kind of optimism not felt since Woods was an amateur.
The door is a little more wide open than it has been in the past because Tiger is not playing, Colin Montgomerie said. And its given a lot of players on form the opportunity of winning a major that possibly they wouldnt have felt that confident before. Without him, someone is going to win these couple of majors, and its not Tiger Woods.
How often can you say that?
Not since the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla has a major been played without Woods, who was getting his game ready for a third straight U.S. Amateur title. Not since 1994 at Turnberry has Woods not competed at the British Open.
In some respects, the Open has never been more open.
Steve Stricker was the 36-hole leader at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open, the only major where Woods missed the cut. He recalls playing that weekend with a small sense of relief that he wouldnt see one name on the leaderboard.
I enjoy paying attention to him when he plays, to see if he can do it again, Stricker said. Were watching history all the time. Its amazing what hes done. But when you dont have to worry about him, thats good. Because if youre in contention and hes there, its going to be more difficult to win. He doesnt throw away many opportunities.
But does that make it any easier to win the silver claret jug?
Not in the least.
Royal Birkdale is the latest English links course to join the rotation, a club that waited until 1954 to host the British Open. Since then, however, it has held the Open more than any other course except for St. Andrews.
This is where Arnold Palmer won his first claret jug in 1961, slashing out of trouble on the 16th hole with a 6-iron worthy of a commemorative plaque. Peter Thomson and Tom Watson both won the last of their five Open championships at Birkdale. The last time the British Open was held on these links, in 1998, Mark OMeara and Brian Watts finished at even-par 280 before OMeara won in a four-hole playoff.
Woods was there, making birdie on three of his last four holes to miss the playoff by one shot.
The question now is what will it be like without him.
Tiger would be the first to agree that the Open is bigger than any one player, and Im sure we can look forward to another memorable week at Birkdale, Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said. Funny enough, I sense some excitement. Its sad that he wont be there. But now I think people wonder whos it going to be?
At the moment, all anyone knows is who it wont be.
Woods was a 5-to-2 favorite by one British bookmaker after he won the U.S. Open for his ninth victory in his last 12 starts. After he announced he would be out the rest of the season, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia were installed as co-favorites at 12-to-1.
Those are the players who have the most to gain by Woods absence, for no other reason than having lost to Woods so often.
Any of the top-10 players have got some scar tissue from Tiger, Rod Pampling said. And theyll feel a bit of relief that hes not there. Look, you still have to post the lowest score. But for sure, theyll be more confident than they normally are. Tiger not being there has got to be a small relief.
No one has finished runner-up to Woods more often than Els'seven times, including a combined 23 shots in consecutive majors. It was at St. Andrews in 2000 when Els matched his lowest score ever in a British Open (66), and one of the first questions for the Big Easy was what he thought about Woods being one shot behind.
Should I talk about Tiger again? Els said that day, clearly exasperated. Come on, guys. I just shot 66.
Garcia has played with Woods in the final group of a major twice'he wound up six shots behind in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, and seven shots behind at Royal Liverpool two years ago in the British Open.
The 28-year-old Spaniard had his closest call in a major last year at Carnoustie, losing to Padraig Harrington in a playoff. When Garcia won THE PLAYERS Championship in May, he jokingly thanked Woods for not being at Sawgrass. Even so, he doesnt expect this British Open to be much different from the others.
I dont think theres going to be less people there, he said. Before Tiger was playing, the Open was still great. Obviously, theres going to be something missing a little bit. But the Open is still the Open. And its bigger than anybody else.
Mathematically, however, the odds have never been better.
Woods has won 30 percent of the majors as a pro, a statistic that led Montgomerie to say it is tougher than ever to win a major in his era. But thats not to suggest it becomes easier without him.
It wasnt any easier for Woods when he finished two shots behind Ben Curtis in 2003, or in 1998 when he couldnt catch his 41-year-old neighbor the last time the British Open was at Royal Birkdale.
There is no need for an asterisk.
The aspects of professional golf are a number of different things, and one of them is that youre healthy, Paul Goydos said. So when you start hearing somebody write about maybe these next two majors need an asterisk, well, then we need to put an asterisk next to all 18 of Jacks. Because Tiger didnt play in any of those.