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British Open back at Royal Birkdale

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 won't be there when it begins Thursday.

Eight days after his epic playoff victory in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the world's No. 1 player had reconstructive surgery on his left knee and will not play the rest of the year.

'It's not just an opportunity for me,' Justin Rose said, 'it's an opportunity for 155 other guys.'

Woods doesn't 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 golf's 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 it's given a lot of players on form the opportunity of winning a major that possibly they wouldn't have felt that confident before. Without him, someone is going to win these couple of majors, and it's 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 wouldn't 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. 'We're watching history all the time. It's amazing what he's done. But when you don't have to worry about him, that's good. Because if you're in contention and he's there, it's going to be more difficult to win. He doesn't 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 O'Meara and Brian Watts finished at even-par 280 before O'Meara 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 I'm sure we can look forward to another memorable week at Birkdale,' Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said. 'Funny enough, I sense some excitement. It's sad that he won't be there. But now I think people wonder who's it going to be?'