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Even Woods absence overshadows events

Ernie Els wouldn't miss it. David Duval is a regular. Sergio Garcia hasn't skipped one in his career. Phil Mickelson calls it one of his favorites stops of the year.

The International is a favored destination for most of the top golfers in the world. But -- again -- their presence is overshadowed by another's absence.

"Journalists are prone to write about the sensationalistic things," said Larry Thiel, The International's executive director, with no bitterness attached. "It doesn't do any good to write about how great the field is. The fact is, the No. 1 player in the world won't be there. The story line has to be why he isn't there."

So it is.

For the third-straight year, the question of why Tiger Woods usually skips The International hangs over Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock like a well-struck lob wedge. This week's International will attract four of the top seven players in the world rankings, and six of the top 10.

Excluding the major championships, only six of the PGA Tour's 29 tournaments had more. Prestigious tournaments such as the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament didn't attract more. Some long-running tournaments, including the Greater Greensboro Open, the Kemper Open and the Milwaukee Open, attracted no top-10 players at all.

Els, Duval, Garcia and Mickelson help establish The International as a reputable tournament. Compared to Woods, however, those players are the Pips. Or the Pippens. Talented and fun to watch, maybe. Not the main attraction.

"I hold him no grudge," Thiel said. "The possibility of us getting Tiger on a frequent basis is there."

It is Thiel's job to compile the field. He rents a dude ranch for players' families during the week. He has summoned a helicopter to take Duval to a private fishing hole. He makes it hard to turn down The International.

Yet Woods does.

"There's nothing else we can do, and our philosophy has always been the same," Thiel said. "We don't put any pressure on the players, don't bug them, don't put undue force for them to make a decision. I cannot be seen doing more for Tiger than I do for Brad Faxon, to be honest."

But it is Woods, not Faxon, who can make galleries multiply, rabbit-like, when in the field and make television ratings jump 50 percent. Qwest, The International's beleaguered lead sponsor, certainly could use Woods' participation. Attracting Woods is a daunting task. He plays little competitive golf. While Mickelson has played 19 Tour events this year, Woods has played 12. His schedule is set for 20 events.

The spots disappear quickly. There are majors and near-majors (the Players Championship and the World Golf Championship series). There are five events title-sponsored by Buick, which pays Woods millions of dollars a year as a spokesman. There are lucrative overseas events and Monday's made-for-TV "Battle at Bighorn." Woods is a regular at the Byron Nelson Classic, Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational and the Memorial Tournament because, Woods said, "that's how you honor these guys who have made all this possible."

That leaves dozens of tournaments vying for about five holes in Woods' calendar.

The International's spot midway between the British Open and the PGA championship hasn't helped. Woods spends a week after the British Open tending to business matters, Thiel said. He played with Nicklaus, Garcia and Lee Trevino under the lights Monday. He'll play the Buick Open next week, then the PGA, then may defend his title at the World Golf Championships: NEC Invitational.

For Woods, that's a lot of golf.

"He's not Superman," said Thiel, contradicting previous reports.

Thiel hopes that swapping places with the Buick Open -- a move, dictated by television, taking effect next year -- will help draw better fields. It might attract more foreign-tour players, such as Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, to Castle Pines as they prepare for the PGA Championship.

Thiel thinks it also will attract Woods. Playing The International, the PGA and the World Golf Championship event seems like a tidy three-week swing for a player who hasn't played four weeks in a row in more than two years.

One problem: Since 1999, the only tournament Woods has played the week before any major was the 2000 Buick Open. When Woods played in The International in 1998 and 1999 (finishing fourth the first time, but missing the Sunday cut the next with a 103-degree temperature), it followed the PGA Championship.

But the change can't hurt. The others will be there, just as they always are. Tickets will sell out, just as they always have. And as next year's International approaches, questions about the presence of Woods will begin, just as they always do. That's the story line. And it will be, of course, even if he comes.

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