Even with no Tiger at Birkdale, specter of Woods hangs over British Open

SOUTHPORT, England -- Phil Mickelson wouldn't speak his name. He was polite about it -- he's scary that way -- but no matter how the question was phrased, Mickelson dodged the topic of Tiger Woods like he was playing paintball.

An excerpt from Lefty's earlier meeting here with the press lads at the British Open:

British reporter: "No Tiger. People are saying that the majors are being devalued. What's your thought on this? Do you think that is a slight on the rest of the profession, or is there an element of truth in it?"

Mickelson: "I am working hard to get my game ready for this week, and I've practiced hard. I've developed a good game plan for this event, and I am excited to compete against whoever is in the field."

Brit: "I mean, you can't say anything in particular about Tiger?"

Mickelson: "Oh, I'm sure I could." [Laughter]

But he didn't. He wouldn't even mention Woods by name. It got so comical that even a reporter, when questioning Mickelson, referred to the injured Woods as "a certain guy." As if Woods were Lord Voldemort -- "He Who Must Not Be Named."

Woods, recovering from ACL surgery and stress fractures, isn't here at Royal Birkdale. At least not physically. But there remains this aura effect about him. He's not here, but he is -- no matter how hard Mickelson pretends otherwise.

Look at the numbers. Woods' presence is everywhere. He's won two of the past three British Opens and has four top-10 finishes in the past five years. That's staggering stuff.

Now factor in the remaining major, the PGA Championship. Woods won it in 2007 and 2006 and finished tied for fourth in 2005. So, in review, He Who Must Not Be Named has won three of the past four, and four of the past six British Opens and PGA Championships.

"I just hope they've taught the engraver how to put an asterisk on the [Claret Jug]," said Geoff Ogilvy, one of the betting favorites this week. "Then everyone will know what the tournament was all about."

Ogilvy was joking. Sort of. The British Open hasn't been devalued, but the dynamic of the tournament -- and the rest of the 2008 season -- has been altered by Woods' absence. Woods isn't bigger than a major -- nobody is -- but it isn't the same without him. How can it be?

There are no sure things in golf. If there were, Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton never would have won British Opens, and Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem never would have won PGA Championships.

But Woods is the closest thing to a gimme putt. In any given year, he is the player most likely to walk (or limp) away with a green jacket, a jug or a huge doorstop silver trophy. And now he's not here.

"I'm not overly disappointed that he's not here as a player," said Ernie Els, who blew out his ACL in 2005 but has recovered well enough to finish third and tied for fourth in the past two British Opens. "But as a player, like a lot of other players, it feels very different, to be honest."

By Els' calculations, Woods' absence means there are "30, 40 players now that have a chance. I think he's so far ahead in the race, we've kind of sagged back a little bit. Phil is still the true No. 2 in the world. But the race, there's quite a lot of players in the mix to really stake a claim to be a favorite."

Els, who won at Muirfield in 2002 and has an amazing record in Opens, is one of those favorites. So is Ogilvy. And Sergio Garcia. And Mickelson.

To be fair to Mickelson, he did discuss Woods at last week's Scottish Open. There was nothing earth-shattering, but Mickelson acknowledged that the window for him, and others, to win a British and a PGA has been pried open. And he's not buying the idea of asterisks or devalued majors (although the English pound kicks sand in the dollar's face over here).

"If you look at [Jack] Nicklaus' 18 majors, or [Tom] Watson -- what does he have, [eight] majors? ... I don't look back at the field they played," said Mickelson a week ago. "I just look back at the tournaments they have won."

And this from Jim Furyk, who has a nice little edge to him: "Let's put it this way: Whoever [wins] here, 20 years from now they're not going to say, 'Well, he was the British Open champion in 2008 but, by the way, Tiger Woods wasn't there.' No one is going to care. It's not going to go down in history that way."

He's right; 20 years from now, no one is going to care. But this week they do.

"It's just kind of a chicken attitude to walk up and say, 'Well, he's not here; now I've got a better opportunity,'" said Furyk. "In reality, that's probably true. But to look at it that way, I'd have a tough time waking up in the morning looking at myself in the mirror if that's the way I was thinking."

With or without Woods here, it won't be an easy championship to win. Royal Birkdale, and the wind, and the rain, and the demands of a major, will see to that. But the simple truth is that a Tiger-less tournament increases everyone's odds of kissing that Claret Jug late Sunday.

In a weird way, that puts more pressure on a guy like Mickelson. If Mickelson doesn't win now, with his longtime nemesis on the DL, then you have to ask the question: Can he win a major when Woods returns next year, this time with two good knees?

No one doubts Mickelson's talent, but he has a habit of underthinking and overthinking his game these days. Five wedges in the bag. No 3-wood. Two drivers. No drivers. It's always something. He's almost too clever for his own good.

Now the golf gods have given him a mulligan. No Tiger. So this becomes his chance, perhaps his best chance, to win his first British, and his first major since 2006. That's the reality. But ssshhhh. In Mickelson Land, you can't mention the W-word.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.