SOUTHPORT, England — The claret jug deserves an asterisk.
How else to describe a British Open in which the winner did not have to beat the best player around? Your name is engraved on the oldest trophy in golf, but did you really earn it? Was it a true test?
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We're talking, of course, about the '76 British Open at St. Andrews.
That would be 1876.
Davie Strath was in the lead and on the 17th hole when he hit his third shot while the group ahead was still on the green. The ball hit one of the players and stopped near the hole, instead of possibly running over the back of the green and onto the road. He two-putted for 5, took a double bogey on the 18th and finished two rounds at 176 to tie with Bob Martin.
But there was a protest about Strath's play on the 17th, and the Royal & Ancient committee decided it would rule on the complaint following a playoff Monday. Strath insisted the committee decide before the playoff, and he refused to play until it did.
Ultimately, all Martin had to do was walk the Old Course in the playoff to win the claret jug.
Now that's an asterisk.
Shooting the lowest score at Royal Birkdale without Tiger Woods in the field?
That's a major champion.
”I just hope they've taught the engraver how to put an asterisk on the trophy,“ Geoff Ogilvy said, eyes rolling and sarcasm dripping. ”Then everyone will know what the tournament was all about.“
Sergio Garcia has heard enough of the asterisk question to know what was coming Tuesday when someone asked whether 20 years from now, this would be remembered as the British Open that Woods didn't play.
He didn't even wait for the question to be finished.
”It doesn't matter,“ he said. ”With all due respect, the Open is bigger than any of us, even Tiger Woods. Nobody is bigger than the tournament itself. If I manage to win this week, I'm not going to go, "Oh, I won the British Open, but Tiger wasn't there.' I still have the claret jug, which is the most important thing.“
Woods is done for the year after surgery on his left knee.
There is no denying something is missing from this British Open, the first without Woods since Turnberry in 1994. He was an attraction as an amateur, especially when he shot 66 in the second round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1996, and certainly at every Open after that when he began piling up majors.
The gallery early in the week at Birkdale has been moderate at best. Woods brings a buzz to the British Open, even if he's usually done with his practice rounds before most fans can have a cup of tea and a bacon bap.
”For this week, I'm not overly disappointed that he's not here,“ Els said with a laugh. ”For the tournament itself, it's a big blow. As a player, it feels different, to be honest. It's very different.“
How is it different?
”Well, you guys are writing up different stories now,“ he said to more laughter. ”You've got to really work at it now.“
Therein lies part of the problem.
Woods has received so much attention over the last dozen years that it seems at times as though no one else is playing the game. Then again, no one else has won 65 times on the PGA Tour and 14 majors before turning 33. The next best record from his generation belongs to Phil Mickelson, who has won 34 times and three majors.
”In some respects, it's fair enough because he's won a lot of golf tournaments and he's the best player of all time,“ Ogilvy said. ”Everyone knows what he's done. And the way it gets portrayed when you're actually watching a golf tournament, it's as if he doesn't have any competition, which is not correct.“
Someone suggested an asterisk for Ogilvy's U.S. Open victory at Winged Foot, the only major where Woods missed the cut.
”He started the tournament,“ Ogilvy said with a smile. ”I can't help it if he missed the cut.“
And therein lies the answer.
Woods played all 72 holes last year at Carnoustie. He was an afterthought by the time Els faltered, Andres Romero made too many double bogeys, Garcia couldn't make a par and Padraig Harrington won in a playoff.
The world's best player never seriously contended twice at Royal Troon, twice at Carnoustie, once at Royal Lytham. And he wasn't the only guy who caught the bad end of the draw at Muirfield in 2002, when he shot an 81 in the third round.
Paul Goydos summed it up best by bringing Jack Nicklaus into the conversation.
”The aspects of professional golf are a number of different things, and one of them is that you're healthy,“ he said. ”So when you start hearing somebody write about maybe these next two majors need an asterisk, well, then we need to put an asterisk next to all 18 of Jack's. Because Tiger didn't play in any of those.“
Woods won't be playing in this major.
This might be hard to believe, but the 137th British Open still starts on Thursday. Someone will shoot the lowest score, over 72 holes or in a playoff. Someone will hoist the silver claret jug.
And some might ask what would have happened if Woods had been around.
Because questions aren't etched in silver.