For than a decade Tiger Woods has been casting a long and chilling shadow across his competitors in professional golf.
It has proved particularly unnerving in the four major championships, but as testimony to his uniqueness in the modern game nothing has been more remarkable than the extent to which his absence from this week’s Open is pervading the thoughts of so many of the players who will begin the battle for the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale on Thursday.
Some even believe the knee surgery that has kept him at home in America is having a disfiguring effect on the great championship itself. They fear the 2008 staging will be regarded as an asterisk Open, with next Sunday’s winner obliged to accept that the public will put an imaginary symbol alongside the recording of his triumph to remind them that he did not have to beat the man who is by far the best golfer now playing and probably the most gifted who ever played.
Ernie Els takes the view that victory this year is likely to be haunted by questions about what would have occurred if Woods had been on the fairways but, as the champion of 2002 (at Muirfield), the big South African can afford to be more relaxed in making such assessments than men who have never won the prize.
Phil Mickelson is the most celebrated among this throng and, not surprisingly, he has been arguing that one man’s absence cannot detract from the validity of a major. Of course, it could be said that the historical verities of golf, the creed that the game is always bigger than any individual, support his case.
But it so happens that Tiger Woods’ talent has been the crucial historical truth of golf since the day he turned professional and when he is missing from a field the sense of diminishment is inescapable. Nobody teeing off at Royal Birkdale can hope to be spared ghostly comparisons.
That’s just how it is when a genius bestrides a sporting age.
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