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No Woods but strong field for Nissan Open

The field of the $5.2 million Nissan Open has a major championship feel to it, but with one glaring exception.

The absence of Tiger Woods from his hometown event usually would send tournament organizers into a panic. While they obviously would like him here, the Nissan Open has received a pretty good consolation prize.

Eight of the top 13 golfers from the Official World Golf Rankings are playing this week, including Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington, who have never played the event. The tournament also got a surprise when Phil Mickelson committed, something he hasn't done since 2001.

With golfers like Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia joining them, it is the strongest field of any event so far this season on the PGA Tour.

"I think it's definitely going to be a week to go out there and play as hard as you can," said Rory Sabbatini, the defending champion. "And obviously, 20 of the top 25 or 28 players of the world, that speaks volumes about this tournament. It's obviously a very well respected tournament. Guys are here to win it for that reason.

Tournament officials have decided to add to the major championship atmosphere by making the course play tougher. A lack of rain has stunted the growth of serious rough, but the greens are making up for it.

"The golf course looks really good, said Els, who won the event in 1999. "It seems like we might have firm greens this year, and they really got a lot of speed on them. So that should make it a bit more difficult for us."

Bumpy poa annua greens have plagued this event for years and golfers, including Woods, were frustrated by their condition, but Woods gave no reason for not attending this week.

Woods has played the event every year he had been a professional except for 2002, when he was recovering from knee surgery. The closest he has gotten to winning was in 1998, when the event was not held at historic Riviera Country Club, but at Valencia Country Club. Woods lost to Billy Mayfair in a playoff.

The Nissan is the only event Woods has played at least four times and not won and his absence has brought out the conspiracy theorists. They believe he is ducking the tournament to preserve his tour consecutive win streak, which stands at seven, four behind the record of 11 by Byron Nelson.

Kevin Na, who also grew up in the Los Angeles area and watched this event before he was a teenager, doesn't believe Woods is avoiding Riviera.

"I think it would be more special to keep the streak alive in the place you've never won," Na said. I'm sure Tiger has a great reason why he is not playing. I don't know, maybe the traffic. I was in traffic all week. It's brutal out here. I'm sure he's got a great reason. I'm sure he will come back next year and play. I'm sure he will win it.

Mickelson, who won last week at Pebble Beach, is sorry Woods won't be here.

"I love competing against him, I'm sorry he is not here," he said. "We have an incredible field though. We have eight or nine out of the top 10 players in the world. This is one of the strongest fields we'll see all year."

It is Riviera Country Club that attracts them. The historic club, built in 1926, hosted the U.S. Open in 1948, won by Ben Hogan. Sam Snead, Lloyd Mangrum, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin and Byron Nelson have all won the event when it was at Riviera.

The course, which is nicknamed Hogan's Alley because of the golfer's success here, features a 236-yard par 3 that Hogan called the best par 3 he ever played. Woods has admiration for the course, but is frustrated he hasn't won here.

He is not alone. Jack Nicklaus made his professional debut at this event, earning $33.33 in 1962, but could never conquer this event. His best effort was a second-place finish in 1978.

Though Goosen has never played in the event, he did manage to earn a place in Riviera lore in 2005.

Goosen was planning on making his debut at Riviera that year, but missed his pro-am tee time and PGA Tour rules state players who miss the pro-am are disqualified from the tournament.

This year, Goosen has taken extra precautions to make sure that doesn't happen.

"The last time I was here I only played one practice round, so not exactly any knowledge or detriment, but I brought six alarm clocks with me this week," Goosen said. "So I'm not going to be sleeping so well before Wednesday and Thursday, I think.

February 15, 2007

 




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