Fri, Feb 07, 2003 - Page 22 News List

Woods takes time off with ailing knee

SHOW MUST GO ON Organizers of the Pebble Beach tournament are playing down the absence of the world's No. 1 golfer, even actor Clint Eastwood

AP , PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA

For the first time since he left Stanford University in 1996, Tiger Woods won't be prowling the fairways and greens of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am's three gorgeous courses.

Woods' ailing knee kept him home this winter -- and he isn't the only big name to skip the famed tournament that has thrived for decades despite bad weather, changing courses and its challenging pro-am format.

"Tiger and I, we're taking a little time off," said Clint Eastwood, a longtime participant in his local tournament and a principal owner of the Pebble Beach Company. "I thought I would give it a little rest."

Woods had surgery on his left knee on Dec. 12 to remove benign cysts that made his ligaments inflate like a balloon. He'll soon decide whether he'll play in next week's Buick Invitational, but his rehabilitation kept him away from Pebble Beach.

He won the AT&T-sponsored tournament in 2000 and contended almost every year, often with the spectacular flair he showed in a memorable duel with Mark O'Meara in 1997.

But Woods already had dropped hints that he might skip Pebble Beach before his surgery -- and he's not alone. Just seven of the top 25 players in the world rankings are playing this season, continuing a perceived slope in the tournament's prominence over the past 15 years.

Not everybody thinks Pebble Beach is on the decline, however. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, David Duval and Davis Love III are on hand -- and Woods isn't gone for good, just for this year.

What's more, the PGA is sure Woods' absence doesn't spell doom for any event, and Pebble Beach is another chance to prove it.

"If you look where [Woods] hasn't played in the last five years, television ratings have been up on average, charitable donations are up," tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "It's natural that people would say, `Well, gee whiz, there must be a big letdown.' But the reality is that the product is very, very strong, week in and week out.

"Because of the way he's played at the AT&T, he is in many ways identified at this one place. But I'm sure we'll see him back in the not-so-distant future."

The Monterey Peninsula's unpredictable weather caused the 1996 tournament's cancellation and affected countless others, but it has been wonderful so far. Clear skies, light winds and warm temperatures greeted the golfers on Wednesday.

And the celebrity field, Eastwood's absence notwithstanding, is as strong as ever. Bill Murray and country musician Clay Walker won the Celebrity Challenge mini-tournament on Wednesday, beating actor James Woods and Glen Campbell.

"I know the press sometimes gets enamored with one player, and certainly Tiger Woods deserves that kind of adulation," Eastwood said. "But by the same token, there are an awful lot of tremendous players here. You're not going to see any better golf anywhere."

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