Here's the problem for this week's British Open participants, as seen through the eyes of the cynical fan: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Call it the ultimate Catch-22 during Tiger Woods' extended absence. For the eventual champion, the victory will be met with cries of, "Oh sure, but I bet you couldn't have won if Tiger was in the field!" For the would-be contenders, the taunts will be even heftier, sounding much like, "C'mon, you couldn't even win when Tiger wasn't in the field!"
Well, let me try to put a stop to this notion before it ever starts. You want an asterisk? Go check out a Barry Bonds baseball. There won't be one on the Claret Jug.
"When you start hearing somebody write about maybe these next two majors need an asterisk," said Paul Goydos, who will compete in his first career Open this week, "well, then we need to put an asterisk next to all 18 of Jack [Nicklaus'] because Tiger didn't play in any of those."
On to the predictions, where I'm not sure things get any easier with Woods out of the mix. After all, I picked him to win the Masters (he finished second) and I picked him to come in second at the U.S. Open (he won). It just goes to prove, once again, that this is even tougher than it looks.
I shared a 10-minute cab ride with Furyk in December 2007 during which we discussed the basketball team at the University of Arizona (his alma mater) and a bunch of other things that weren't too noteworthy. But I also asked him how this year's major venues set up for him, and he responded by telling me that he was already really looking forward to Royal Birkdale, where he finished T-4 a decade ago. Consider this: His game is rounding into form (he finished T-3 in his last start two weeks ago at the AT&T National) and he's finally found a putter that agrees with him. ("I have no problem at all switching putters," he said. "Sometimes when I get comfortable with something, I'll stick with it for a long time.") It could all mean perfect timing to add a Claret Jug to his lone major title, the 2003 U.S. Open.
There's an interesting plot twist in the movie "Happy Gilmore" during which the title character transforms from simply a solid ball-striker to a player who can get the ball into the hole from close range. "Uh-oh!" he exclaims. "Happy learned how to putt!" For Garcia, the Adam Sandler flick may be less comedy and more biography. Long known as one of the world's best players from tee to green, the Spaniard looks as though he's finally figured out the flat stick. At the recent European Open, Sergio shot a final-round 66 that included just 21 total putts. He later called it, "the best putting round I've ever had."
The hottest player in the world right now? You can have Kenny Perry, who decided to hang in Milwaukee -- yes, Milwaukee! -- this week instead of playing in the Open. I'll take Karlsson, who hasn't finished worse than T-13 since mid-March. And no, that doesn't just include B-list tourneys overseas; the stout Swede was T-8 at the Masters and T-4 at the U.S. Open. All that's missing is a win, but it could be coming very, very soon.
4. Lee Westwood
Coming off a beefed-up offseason workout regimen, Westwood owns eight top-10s on the European Tour so far this season. That total includes the cosanctioned U.S. Open, where he finished 1 stroke out of the Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff. He's playing some of the best golf of his life, though Westwood doesn't yet have a major trophy to show for it. Could that change this week? It's quite possible.
5. Geoff Ogilvy
For some reason, the following quote from Ogilvy, said just minutes after winning the 2006 U.S. Open, has always stuck in my mind: "This is the last [major] I would have thought I was going to win because I don't drive it very straight. But I've always been decent at grinding it out when par has been a good score. If you really set your mind to it and have the right attitude about it, it can be quite enjoyable." I've always fancied Ogilvy's chances more at the British than any other major; the Aussie grew up playing a lot of links-style golf. If the winning score is indeed close to par this week, expect him to be among the leaders.
Try not to look at the name and photo to the left for a moment. Instead, let me present just the facts: Here's a player with 12 career PGA Tour victories, including one major championship (the 1997 British Open). He's eighth on the all-time money list. He sank one of the most famous putts in golf history (a 45-footer for birdie at the 1999 Ryder Cup). And he's just 36 years old. Sound like a Hall of Famer? Maybe not quite yet, but another Open win this week and the underappreciated Leonard could be headed in that direction.
7. Justin Rose
Ten years ago, the precocious 17-year-old amateur smiled and fist-pumped his way to a T-4 result on this venue, the image of his final-hole pitch-in for birdie still etched into our memories. Since then, he turned pro (one day later), missed the cut in his first 21 starts, worked his way back, won a few events, treaded water for a few years, started winning more, became the Order of Merit champion and is now ranked No. 9 in the world. "I've come a long way," he said. "Everything that had happened in the past was kind of water under the bridge by having got to this point in my career." It would be poetic justice, like a journey come full circle, if Rose blooms once again at Royal Birkdale.
Most dudes don't make 10 birdies in a regular-season PGA or Euro tour event, let alone a major championship. So it's pretty incredible when you think about the fact that Romero accomplished this feat in a single round, carding a perfect 10 red numbers on the final day at Carnoustie last year. Though he was undone by a double-bogey on the penultimate hole, the young Argentine has shown a penchant for relentlessly stepping on the gas pedal and not letting up once he's in contention.
Since missing the cut in his initial start of the season, Allenby has finished in the money 17 consecutive times, and his 12 top-25s include a T-2 (at the Stanford St. Jude) and a T-3 (at the AT&T National). At some point, he almost has to win by accident, although it hasn't happened yet. The Aussie hasn't posted a PGA Tour victory since 2001, though he did win the triple crown Down Under a few years back. His Open results aren't anything to write home about (10 made cuts in 15 starts, a best finish of only T-10 back in 1997), but anyone playing this well deserves special mention.
10. Graeme Storm
Snicker, if you will, at the inclusion of this 30-year-old England native in the top 10, but -- surprise, surprise -- not everybody on the leaderboard is going to be a household name. Storm is among the European Tour leaders in greens in regulation and he's no stranger to major championship pressure. At last year's PGA, he was the first-round leader by 2 strokes. A perfect Storm? Perhaps not, but there will be no more apt surname when it starts raining sideways at Birkdale.
11. Graeme McDowell
He's solid, he's underrated and his game is rounding into form at just the right time, as he won the Scottish Open on Sunday. With no Darren Clarke or Rory McIlroy in the field, the hopes of Northern Ireland rest on McDowell's shoulders alone.
12. Trevor Immelman
The Grand Slam remains an elusive white whale for at least another year, as Immelman followed up his Masters victory with a T-65 at the U.S. Open. Expect a better performance this week, though. Immelman owns a home in England, has played a lot of links golf and has never missed the cut in five previous Open appearances.
Don't let the Spafro fool you; this dude can go. In addition to his victory at the prestigious BMW PGA Championship (think Players Championship for Euro Tour guys), Jimenez has finished in the top eight at the Masters and U.S. Open already this season.
14. Nick Dougherty
Nick Faldo's protégé would like nothing more than a strong result this week to keep his name in consideration for the Ryder Cup. But you heard this here first: Even if the potential rookie doesn't make the squad on points, captain Nick will be quite tempted to award him a roster spot.
15. Phil Mickelson
I'm not sure if this says more about Mickelson or the state of the field without Woods in the mix, but according to most oddsmakers, Lefty is among the top three favorites entering this week's tournament. Yes, this is the same Phil Mickelson who owns just one top-10 finish (solo third in '04) in 15 career Open starts. Then again, he contends that his game is more built for links-style golf than ever before. "I believe that because I've progressed in the last three or four years in my ability to control my trajectory, keep it down, [it] allows me or will give me the best chance to perform well," he said.
16. Vijay Singh
Typical Vijay. He recently spent some downtime at his new vacation home in Hawaii while working on his game. Don't expect to see any rust from the guy with 11 career top-20s at the Open.
17. Hunter Mahan
In three previous Open trips, Mahan has never finished worse than T-36, including a sublime T-6 one year ago. A pretty long, pretty straight driver of the ball, he could be primed for another strong result.
18. Ernie Els
The prohibitive favorite on most oddsmakers' boards is a player who has missed the cut in four of seven PGA Tour events since winning the Honda Classic in early March. More Big Enigma than Big Easy these days, Els continues to maintain that his game is coming around and he's quite confident, though at least he admits things could be better. Well, as you all know," he said before finishing T-9 at last week's Scottish Open, "my game's been a little bit dicey, to say the least." That's not going to cut it at the Open, though the championship likely remains his best chance at winning a fourth major going forward.
19. Nick O'Hern
Ask a handful of touring pros to name the five best putters in the world, and O'Hern will be mentioned more often than not -- even if he does use that unwieldy broomstick thing.
20. Paul Casey
Trying to split time on two tours doesn't seem to be paying dividends for the former Ryder Cupper, but the good news going into this week is that he's fared much better in Europe so far this year.
21. Adam Scott
It's always something, isn't it? Entering Masters week, Scott had a high fever and throat infection. (He finished T-25.) Entering U.S. Open week, he had a broken right hand. (He finished T-26.) The results are actually impressive, considering the ailments, but for a top-five talent, Scott has clearly underperformed and underwhelmed at the majors. "I really haven't taken my best stuff into a major yet," he told me earlier this year. "It's been something that I've struggled with, peaking on those four weeks of the year. I'm working really hard to change that." I believe him, but he's got to walk before he runs. Scott won't win a big one until he seriously contends a few times first.
22. Mike Weir
If not for a strong close to his 2007 campaign, the diminutive lefty would be among the front-runners for comeback player of the year, with seven top-25s in 17 starts so far.
23. Bart Bryant
When the course isn't too long and hitting fairways actually means something, Bryant is in business. Heck, let the sun shine down for a few days and he may think he's back in Texas.
24. Oliver Wilson
In case you blinked for that brief moment during Round 2 of the U.S. Open, yes, Wilson did temporarily lead the tournament. And no, it wasn't a fluke. Those who don't wake up early to watch Golf Channel telecasts should be forewarned that Ollie is among the most unheralded yet talented players on the Euro circuit.
25. Boo Weekley
Last year at Carnoustie, country bumpkin Weekley thrilled the British tabloids with deep thoughts such as, "I didn't know [Scotland] was the home of golf. I thought the home of golf was where I was from." His game, however, was hardly lost in translation. He finished T-35 in his first Open appearance. He'll go into this one cold, however; after the birth of his second child, Weekley hasn't competed in a tourney since last month's U.S. Open.
26. Steve Stricker
Just when it looked as if his game was finally starting to come around, Stricker shot a final-round 3-over 73 at the AT&T National to drop from solo second to -- gulp! -- a share of 18th place.
27. Ian Poulter
He picked Tiger to win the Masters. (He was wrong.) He picked himself to win the U.S. Open. (He was very wrong.) As for the British, well, at least he stands a better chance than Woods.
28. K.J. Choi
Even when he plays well at the Open (T-16 in 2004, T-8 last year), it's because Choi gets off to a hot start, then fades down the stretch.
29. Ross Fisher
Simply put, Fisher's performance at the European Open, during which he lapped the field by 7 strokes, was a thing of beauty. When a player like Garcia does everything right and you actually extend your lead on him, well, you're doing something right, too.
30. Stewart Cink
Considering he's barely made a peep on the Open radar screen over the years, last year's T-6 finish was either an aberration or a sign that he's figured something out. I'll go with the former, but a guy playing this well so far (seven top-10s in 15 starts this season) shouldn't be overlooked.
He may not win majors, but Monty can sure win over an interview room when he feels up to it. Speaking prior to last week's Scottish Open, he said, "I plan on improving, and there's no reason why not. I'm sort of -- I was going to say I'm fit enough, but I never have been, and mentally, I never have been that way, either, so I don't really know where we are." Despite those physical and mental limitations, Monty can still find fairways and make putts, as evidenced by a recent runner-up result at the French Open. He's pined for a Claret Jug for many years now and though time is no longer on his side, the Great Scot can play as well as anyone on any given week.
32. Scott Strange
After never having finished better than 106th on the European Tour money list, Strange is enjoying a career year, thanks to his first career win at the Celtic Manor Wales Open. Strange days, indeed.
33. Stuart Appleby
Same ol' story for Stuart in the majors. Just as he did at last year's Masters, Appleby faltered on the weekend at Torrey Pines, shooting 79-75 to finish T-36. Ever since losing to Els in a playoff at Muirfield in 2002, he's been a "major" disappointment.
34. Tim Clark
Gotta love this guy's attitude. "A lot of players get intimidated by the majors; I just get really excited to get there and I feel like it brings the best out of my game," Clark said earlier this year. "I don't always like going to courses where 20-under wins the tournament. I enjoy the challenge of even-par golf, and that's what I find the majors being."
The good news: Harrington recently won the Irish PGA, just as he did prior to last year's Open, which he won. The bad news: Harrington suffered a wrist injury on Saturday and said he already would have pulled out if this wasn't a major week. According to eyewitnesses, he played only nine holes at Royal Birkdale on Tuesday and never hit a ball from the rough. Not a strong sign for his title defense.
36. Martin Kaymer
Admit it: One year ago, you had never even heard of this guy. Now, whenever you want to impress your friends with knowledge about the next great superstar coming over from Europe, you invoke Kaymer's name. Well, don't feel bad. You're probably right.
37. Alex Cejka
Enjoy looking at patterns? Check out Cejka's Open record: In his first start, he finished T-11 then followed with two missed cuts. In his next start after that, he finished T-13, then again missed two cuts. If that pattern continues, his one-out-of-three success rate should hold form this week.
38. Anthony Kim
Maybe the recent AT&T National champ should be ranked higher on this list. Then again, consider his comments about his Open chances right after that victory: "I just want to get used to playing links golf and find out what that's about. I've never played that before and I'm looking forward to that opportunity." He's too good not to contend and maybe even win a few of these things at some point in his career. But it will take a few more years of experience before it happens.
39. Rod Pampling
If he ever won this thing, perhaps Pampling's first order of business would be to implore everyone to forget about his dubious achievement in the 1999 Open, when he owned the first-round lead but followed with an 86 to miss the cut.
40. Brendan Jones
If I could buy stock in this globe-trotter, I'd have a pile of shares that weren't worth much. But I wouldn't be selling just yet. If world travelers like Brian Watts and Todd Hamilton can make a splash at the Open, so can Jones.
41. Angel Cabrera
Perhaps still riding the hangover of last year's U.S. Open victory, Cabrera has not only failed to follow with a splash, he may have given up the title of Top Argentine Golfer to countryman Romero.
42. Soren Hansen
That guy you've never heard of who would be part of the European Ryder Cup roster if the points ended today? That's Hansen, 34, of Denmark (not to be confused with Anders Hansen or Peter Hanson, who are both also in the field).
43. Aaron Baddeley
Four career missed cuts in four Open starts + No top-25 results since April = Another middling performance for Badds.
44. Retief Goosen
File the two-time U.S. Open champ under the category of, "Hey, didn't you used to be somebody?" Other than a T-2 at Doral, the Goose has been cooked, with no other results better than T-14 this season. Then again, he always seems to step it up at the Open, where he owns eight top-15 results in the past 11 years. Eh, I'm going with guilty until proven innocent in this scenario. Until Goosen plays well for a prolonged period of time, it's tough to place him any higher.
45. Damien McGrane
Here's everything you ever needed to know about McGrane: When paired with Woods during Round 3 of this year's Dubai Desert Classic, he shot 72 to his partner's 73, earning another date with the world's top-ranked player the next day.
46. Davis Love III
One of the few players in the field who has competed in two career Opens at Birkdale, Love has returned to a full schedule following offseason ankle surgery, but has yet to post a result better than T-24.
47. Henrik Stenson
It's usually all or nothing for Stenson, but it's been the latter at the Open, where he's posted only one round of better than 71 in 12 career opportunities.
48. Simon Wakefield
Interestingly enough, the top 11 driving accuracy leaders on the Euro Tour this season all failed to qualify for the Open. No. 12 is -- you got it -- Wakefield.
49. Niclas Fasth
When last we saw Fasth, he was tapping in for a 15-over 86 in the second round of the U.S. Open. Even Tony Romo fared better at Torrey Pines.
50. John Daly
Can he pull off another improbable, implausible -- OK, I'll just say it -- impossible major victory? Nope. Daly's game has been in complete disarray for a while, but that doesn't mean he won't climb the leaderboard before faltering again. At last year's Open, he found his name near the top before sputtering to a second-round 76 and a missed cut. Same goes for the PGA, where he stuck around on the weekend, but couldn't keep up his solid play. On any given day, Long John can be as good as they come, but right now he simply can't keep it together for 72 holes.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com