Title at Torrey on the Line

Pat Perez is two weeks removed from his first PGA Tour victory and is competing on a Torrey Pines golf course where he grew up playing as a kid. Someone asked him what his chances were of winning the Buick Invitational.

"Better than Tiger's," he said.

That's one bet he can't lose, for the simple reason that Tiger Woods is nowhere to be found on the public course he has turned into his private kingdom. One of the few guarantees in golf is that you can't win if you don't play.

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Woods is a six-time winner of the Buick Invitational, and his dominance at Torrey Pines took on a new dimension last summer when he won the U.S. Open with a knee injury so severe that he had season-ending surgery a week later.

Phil Mickelson won the Buick Invitational three times, including consecutive years at the turn of the decade. He was informed that he is the only past champion from the last decade who will tee it up this week. Mickelson is no economist, but it didn't take him long to figure out that Woods owns five of those titles, and the other two belong to John Daly (suspended) and Jose Maria Olazabal (still in Europe).

"I wasn't really reading through the fine print of the program," Mickelson replied.

The Buick Invitational gets started Thursday with a field that features Mickelson and double major winner Padraig Harrington as the only players from the top 10 in the world, but a host of others looking to join a half-dozen players who are part of golf trivia.

Name the six players who won a tournament where Woods did not defend his title?

If history is any indication, it won't be just anybody.

Harrington is on that list, having won the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills last summer while Woods was on his couch. Camilo Villegas is the only player to do it twice, winning the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in consecutive weeks during the FedEx Cup playoffs.

David Duval was No. 1 in the world when he won the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta in 1999, the year Woods did not show up to defend because the tournament moved from May to a week before the Masters.

Anthony Kim won the Wachovia Championship as Woods recovered from the first of his two knee surgeries last year. The other was Vijay Singh, who won the Bridgestone Invitational, where Woods was the three-time defending champion.

The lowest-ranked player in that group was Kim at No. 37 before he won at Quail Hollow.

Harrington is among those who is in no hurry for Woods to return.

"I know as little as anybody else, and don't really need to think too much about it," Harrington said. "He'll let us know. And I'm sure when he does know, he'll tell us something different, anyway. I know that's what I would do."

Woods is missing the Buick Invitational for the first time since 1997, his first full year on the PGA Tour, when he spent the first few months across the world playing (and winning) the Asian Honda Classic in Thailand.

Harrington, meanwhile, is playing it for the first time.

He was around last summer for the U.S. Open, where he tied for 36th, but it's a wonder the Irishman even recognized the place. He played the pro-am Wednesday on the North course, which seven months ago contained corporate tents, a parking lot, a driving range, a chipping area, a locker room and the media center.

"When I played the Open, I didn't even realize that the North Course was where it was," Harrington said.

For the record, it's just north of the South Course.

In fact, the first tee on the South and the first tee on the North are right next to each other. But pardon Harrington for not noticing in June, because a massive grandstand covered the North tee.

"When I teed off yesterday on the South Course, there was someone teeing off on the first tee of the North Course, and I was thinking, 'What golf course is that?"' he said. "At a U.S. Open, you really don't see the golf course as it is, with so many tented villages around the place and so many spectators. You don't get a flavor for the place, unlike now.

"And obviously," he said, "the North Course in spectacular."

There aren't nearly as many tents, and even Buick has scaled back its on-course signs and advertising. There won't be as many spectators as there were at the U.S. Open, when Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff, or maybe not as many as the Buick Invitational last year, especially with rain in the forecast through the weekend.

The same security detail is in place. They'll be looking after Mickelson this year.

"Every time we've walked with Tiger, he's won," one of the officers said Wednesday morning.

That might be just the omen Mickelson needs.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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