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Woods: Kim, Garcia, Villegas got biggest boost from his absence

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Tiger Woods posed next to the trophy on the 18th green, a familiar scene with a rare twist. It was Sunday, and his clothing did not include so much as a trace of red.

Plus, he was wearing a jacket – black, not green.

He was merely the host of the Chevron World Challenge. His duty was to thank sponsors and volunteers and give the trophy to Vijay Singh.

“I’m on the operational side this week,” Woods said.

That still beats being operated on, which is why no one had seen Woods at a tournament in any capacity since he won the U.S. Open, his last event before season-ending knee surgery.

He went the final 188 days of the golf season without hitting a single shot, opening a host of opportunities for those he regularly beats.

Singh won the event for the first time, taking home his third trophy that belonged to Woods a year ago. The other two were from the Bridgestone Invitational and the FedEx Cup.

Did the 45-year-old Fijian take advantage of the big cat being away?

Not really.

Singh has been among golf’s elite for the better part of a decade now, winning three majors and taking the No. 1 ranking away from Woods in 2004. He might not be considered Woods’ chief rival, but he could be remembered as the second-best player in Woods’ era.

Still, there were some who benefited from Woods spending more time chasing his daughter than chasing Jack Nicklaus.

And there were some who didn’t.

The next four players behind Woods in the world ranking after he won the U.S. Open – Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy and Ernie Els – combined to play 41 times and produced one victory over the last six months. The only time Mickelson made headlines was because of something Woods’ caddie said.

Woods simply gobbles up so much attention when he plays, whether he wins or finishes fifth (his worst finish this year). During a discussion about rivals, Nicklaus once told Woods that the most important thing was to be part of the conversation.

With the world’s No. 1 player out of sight the second half of the season, the conversation shifted to five players:

Padraig Harrington.

The Irishman joined some truly elite company by becoming only the seventh player in the last 50 years to win consecutive majors in the same season. The others were Woods, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer.

Anthony Kim.

Everyone raves about Kim’s raw skill and unlimited potential. It was worth paying attention to when he delivered.

Camilo Villegas.

The Colombian deserves a cameo mention, but two consecutive victories is not quite enough to establish himself as a challenger to Woods. Even when he wasn’t contending, Villegas was promoted for his magazine looks and stylish clothing. But he is No. 7 in the world, and rightfully mentioned in a growing group of young stars.

Sergio Garcia.

Garcia is similar to Singh in that he has been part of the conversation even before Woods left, having established himself as the best player to have never won a major (and perhaps the youngest player, at 28, to carry that burden).

Boo Weekley.

Weekley is barely ranked inside the top 50 in the world, yet he is becoming somewhat of an icon in American golf, helped by his homespun country humor, simplistic outlook and galloping down fairway at the Ryder Cup using his driver as a toy horse.

Asked who benefited the most from his absence, Woods focused on youth – Kim, Villegas, Garcia.

“They’re hitting their stride now,” he said. “They’re coming into their own.”

The question is whether they can keep pace when Woods is wearing a red shirt on Sunday, not a black jacket.

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