PINEHURST: Former world number one Tiger Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, will miss his second major in a row after back surgery to relieve a pinched nerve.
Just when he will return is uncertain, but US television ratings took a plunge the past two months with Woods out even as others rose to the spotlight.
“In the absence of Tiger, it let people come through and be more recognized and shine for how good of players they are,” Rory McIlroy, also a former world number one said.
“I do miss him. He has been the face of golf for the last 15, 20 years and golf is a better sport and a better place with Tiger Woods in it.
“Hopefully, he has a speedy recovery and he gets back on the course soon, because any tournament where Tiger Woods is a factor, he creates a big buzz.”
McIlroy, who made an emotional split with tennis-star fiancee Caroline Wozniacki just ahead of his victory, would like to reclaim the top world ranking himself.
“There could be a real tussle at the top for that number one ranking come the end of the summer,” McIlroy said.
“I’ve got a desire to get back to number one in the world . . . hopefully handle it a little better and keep hold of it a little longer.”
McIlroy and top-ranked Adam Scott, among the favorites at the 114th US Open, will put a premium on patience and creativity this week at Pinehurst.
Australian star Scott, the 2013 Masters champion coming off a win last month at Colonial, plays alongside Masters winner Bubba Watson and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa on Thursday and Friday.
“It’s going to present a great challenge,” Scott said.
Northern Irishman McIlroy, a two-time major champion who won last month’s European PGA Championship at Wentworth, will join fellow US Open winners Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson in the first and second rounds.
Pinehurst offers an unusual scene for a US Open, the normal tight fairways and dense rough replaced by wide fairways and sandy areas with weeds that give players more options and more decisions on how to attack greens that are turtle-backed and lightning quick.
“It’s not lack of rough off the fairways,” Scott said. “If you spend the week playing out of that, you’re not going to do well.”
It’s what players do from there, Scott says, that will decide a champion.
“Everyone is going to miss a few more greens this week than they’re used to, so they better be ready for that,” he said.
McIlroy put himself among the favorites and warned of Aussie Jason Day, a US Open runner-up in 2011 and 2013 who is back on form after a left thumb injury.
“There’s a lot of guys that are playing really good golf at the minute, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson,” McIlroy said. “I think this golf course sets up really well for someone like Jason Day, hits it long, hits it high, has a really sharp short game.
“There’s a lot of guys coming in here feeling like they have a great chance to win. I put myself in that category and hopefully I live up to that and I can give myself a chance coming down the stretch on Sunday.”