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Strong field for Wachovia, but without Woods

The Wachovia Championship has become known for its numerous perks. It’s what made Tiger Woods’ absence stick out even more on Wednesday.

There was no sign of the Buick pitchman’s vehicle among the sea of Mercedes courtesy cars in the players’ parking lot. The tournament known for its pampering of players is the first scheduled event Woods will miss since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

But as the PGA Tour prepares for life without the world’s No. 1 golfer this week and next at The Players Championship, not everyone is bummed out.

“At least I won’t have to deal with all his fans,” Rory Sabbatini said.

It was a year ago here at Quail Hollow Club that Sabbatini said he was looking forward to being paired with Woods in the final round. Woods shot a 3-under 69 to win the tournament, while Sabbatini shot 74 and finished tied for third.

A week later, Sabbatini said Woods looked “beatable as ever.” Woods responded by noting he had as many wins in 2007 as Sabbatini had in his career.

Sabbatini’s been hearing it from the galleries ever since.

“There were a couple of times I wanted to bury a few clubs in a couple of people,” Sabbatini said. “Now you just have to realize that, you know what, half of them are drunk and the other half—everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Sabbatini is part of a loaded field—even with Woods going through injury rehab—for Thursday’s start to the six-year-old Wachovia Championship.

Phil Mickelson, armed with a new putter, will play his first tournament since the Masters. Last year’s runner up, Steve Stricker, is here. So is Adam Scott, 2006 champion Jim Furyk, 2005 winner Vijay Singh and Masters champion Trevor Immelman. In all, 18 of the world’s top 25 will play after Lee Westwood withdrew on Wednesday.

Sabbatini is ranked 12th, but struggling. He missed the cut at the Masters and at last week’s Byron Nelson Championship. He’s finished no better than 33rd in his past six tournaments.

But the outspoken South African, who tried to convince reporters that he didn’t know Woods wasn’t here, thinks his return trip to Charlotte might change his luck.

“It was this time last year that the media butchered me,” Sabbatini said. “So maybe it’ll be a new year. Can we do a Tiger’s New Year? We’ve got the Chinese New Year, we got our New Year. How about a Tiger New Year?”

Sabbatini and the rest of the field will face a course beloved by most golfers, but still waterlogged from Monday’s 3 inches of rain. Groundskeepers were busy sucking moisture out of the greens during Wednesday’s pro-am. The plan was to have shorter rough and faster greens than a year ago when Woods won by two shots over Stricker.

“I love how progressive this tournament is in having the two-layered cuts of rough,” Mickelson said. “I thought that was a terrific idea, the way you could hit some shots if you miss the fairway, but if you go in the deep stuff, you’re wedging out.”

Mickelson has spent the past two weeks working on his struggling putting. He said his recent fitness routine, which included extensive stretching, has caused him to grow up to an inch. It’s why he switched to a 35-inch putter from a 33 1/2 -inch model.

“I spent two weeks working on it and trying to get it dialed in,” Mickelson said. “I putted great today. I thought I hit a lot of good putts, and I’m excited.”

Immelman remained busy this week, shooting a magazine cover at a nearby course, his life forever changed after winning at Augusta. But Immelman acknowledged all the interviews, the autograph signing and travel has affected him. He missed the cut last week in his first event since winning the green jacket.

“I think my mind has probably just slipped from my game at this point,” Immelman said. “It’s something I’m addressing and something I’m hoping to fix as soon as possible.”

Woods’ absence combined with the otherwise strong field gives this tournament, with the PGA Tour’s toughest closing three holes, a unique feel. Still, there wasn’t anywhere the near the buzz of last year, when Woods played his pro-am with Michael Jordan with a gigantic crowd that rivaled Sunday’s final round.

“The game of golf always suffers when he’s not playing,” Mickelson said. “We all benefit when he does. This tournament here has led all the other Tour events into quality and what a Tour event should be. I wish this tournament was rewarded with this participation.”

It’s the first time in three years on the PGA Tour that a player hasn’t returned to defend his title. Maybe his fans will take it easy on Sabbatini.

“There are times when you have to bite your tongue pretty hard and not say anything,” Sabbatini said. “It’s funny that the media can create something and people can then take that to almost create your personality of who you are because of something the media has created. It’s sad.”

 

May 1, 2008




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