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Wide open field for Western Open

Tiger. Tiger. Tiger.

For a guy who's not even at the Western Open, Tiger Woods still manages to be the center of attention.

For the first time since he turned professional, Woods is sitting out the Western Open, which he's won twice. He'd planned to play but withdrew Tuesday because of an unspecified illness.

But that didn't stop the Tiger talk. Far from it. Instead of the usual questions about how tough he is to play, golfers were asked instead Wednesday what his withdrawal means and if it changes their game.

``If Tiger withdraws, if Justin Leonard withdraws, I don't breathe a sigh of relief and say, `Now I can win,''' said Davis Love III, who finished second to Scott Hoch by one stroke last year.

``I still feel like I have to do exactly the same job whether they're here or not,'' Love added. ``You have to do just about everything perfect and get a couple of good breaks to win. ... If you don't play pretty much perfect, you're not going to walk away with a golf tournament anymore.''

In fairness to everyone else, Woods hasn't been much of a factor at the Western Open recently. He's won it twice (1997 and 1999) since turning pro in 1996, but he was 23rd in 2000.

He finished 20th last year, 13 strokes off the lead.

``We don't worry about who is here and who isn't,'' Hoch said. ``Golf is an individual sport and we're just trying to shoot as low a score that we can and hope it's the lowest. If the best player isn't here, best two players aren't here, we still have a good tournament.''

Even without Woods and Phil Mickelson, the PGA Tour's top two players, the field is strong at the Western Open, sponsored by Advil.

Love's runner-up finish at the Greater Hartford Open showed he's back on track after being injured most of last year. Four of the top 10 players on the money list -- Leonard, David Toms, Vijay Singh and Nick Price -- are here. So are former winners Robert Allenby, Joe Durant, Steve Stricker and Billy Mayfair.

``We have more players that can win tournaments than ever before,'' Hoch said. ``The quality is so deep.''

Love agreed.

``Anybody that plays well is going to run right up to the top and have the confidence to win out here,'' he said. ``They're not afraid to win anymore.''

Love never has been afraid to win, but he did find himself plagued by doubts about his health last year. A bulging disc in his neck forced him to take two months off between the Masters and the U.S. Open last summer.

When he came to the Western, he was so out of playing shape he was barely practicing.

``This time of year I was hitting 20 to 30 balls to warm up before a round, and that was all I was doing,'' he said. ``I had a few good tournaments, but they were mostly playing on adrenaline and fumes. Not really playing with a lot of power.''

Still, he led after the second and third rounds, and then he and Hoch put on a show in the final round that ranks as one of the tournament's best.

With Love leading by one stroke, the two matched each other hole for hole until the 18th. Love got in trouble when he sent his tee shot so far left it almost hit the corporate tents. Hoch's drive, meanwhile, was almost perfect.

Love recovered to reach the green in three, but his par putt was long. Hoch made his birdie putt and won the title.

``When I had my first break after this tournament, I went and watched the tape and realized really how good play it was between Davis and I,'' Hoch said. ``Probably if the names were different, they'd say it was one of the best shootouts that they've ever had. Or that the PGA has ever had.''

Despite his health problems, Love finished second on the tour in scoring average (69.06) and birdie average (4.45), and third in driving distance (297.6 yards).

But he didn't feel healthy again until the off-season. And it's only been within the past few months that he feels his game has recovered.

``The unknown in an injury is probably the scariest thing. Am I going to get better? Am I going to be as capable as I was before I got hurt?'' Love said. ``Once you feel like you're getting better and you know the things to do, you can attack it and come out on top.''

And with Woods at home, the Western is wide open.


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