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Column: 'More fun playing a handful than one guy'

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LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist

Just before noon, the name ''Tiger Woods'' popped up on the leaderboard at the British Open with a red ''-4'' alongside it.

Not long ago, that would have been a signal for everyone else to book the first flight home as soon as the tournament ended. They already knew who had reserved the best seat at the trophy presentation ceremony afterward.

On this Thursday, though, no one in the field at Royal Lytham was so much as tempted to reach into their bag for a cellphone. They all know that 15 different golfers - including nine first-timers - have won the last 15 majors. And that follows a run during which Woods won six of the previous 15.

What few can agree on is whether it's harder or easier to win one of the marquee events since Tiger went into the tank.

''You can argue it both ways,'' rising star Rickie Fowler said, splitting the fairway with his answer. ''I think it's fun going into the week knowing that there's a full field of guys and almost anyone can win. We're not saying, `OK, there's a 50 percent chance or so that this guy is going to win this week, we'll try to give him a run and if not, we'll play for second.'

''As a player,'' he added, ''it's a lot more fun playing against a handful of guys for a championship vs. trying to beat down one guy.''

There's no point asking that ''one guy'' whether golf is more fun these days, nor debating whether the game is better off with the Woods dynasty less dominant. Hard-core fans might find the variety more interesting, but the TV networks and sponsors would argue otherwise, citing how much Woods moves the meter.

As proof, Woods began the opening round with the largest gallery and then, like the Pied Piper, kept collecting followers with a birdie at No. 1 and three more in a four-hole stretch starting at No. 4. But instead of wilting, a collection of well-worn rivals and fresh faces put in a bid for attention with some fireworks of their own.

Aussie Adam Scott wrested the outright lead from Woods by getting to 5-under, then 7-under, eventually settling for a 64. Two other major winners, Paul Lawrie (British Open) and Zach Johnson (Masters) passed him with 65s. By the time Woods signed for a 67, he had plenty of company, including three-time major winner Ernie Els and more recent champions Graeme McDowell and Bubba Watson.

''As good a starting field as you've seen, maybe?'' someone asked Woods.

''I only saw a couple of guys,'' he replied.

Woods pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors has stalled at 14, and no one bothered to ask whether he's worried that any of the names alongside his at Royal Lytham will get in the way this time. But he conceded earlier in the week: ''More guys now have a chance to win major championships than ever before, and I think it will just continue to be that way.''

That's a far cry from how Colin Montgomerie used to describe the annual chase to divvy up the season's four biggest events: ''Two for Tiger and one for Phil (Mickelson) Ernie or Vijay (Singh). That leaves one for the rest of us.''

If it's harder than ever to dominate, Woods has only himself to blame. He started the game earlier than nearly all his predecessors, played more and trained harder. His quick success in regular tour events and majors convinced plenty of the kids who followed him into golf that there was no reason they couldn't jump the queue, too.

''That feeling of patience and the feeling of a tournament being like a marathon has gone away,'' said Padraig Harrington, whose back-to-back major wins at the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship wound up demarcating the so-far-Tiger-less era. ''It tends to be a sprint from Thursday morning and if you're not 3-, 4-under par after nine holes, you feel like you're out of the tournament in a regular event. And I think what you're seeing is what's gradually seeping into the majors. ...

''But I do, I think we were spoiled with Tiger winning 14 majors in 15 years,'' he said. ''People began to think that was predictable.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els

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