A smaller star, a larger supporting cast in golf

SHANGHAI (AP) The stone clubhouse at Sheshan International should have a plaque that says, ''Tiger Woods was here.''

That's not an indictment on his absence this year.

It's a reminder of the role he played in getting the HSBC Champions to where it is now.

''He was the firepower who got the needle moving,'' said Giles Morgan, the global head of sponsorship and events at HSBC.

Woods has not played this World Golf Championship since 2010, which marked his fourth appearance in six years. The HSBC Champions began in 2005 as a European Tour event and it has grown into more than organizers ever imagined. It is regarded in this part of the world as ''Asia's major,'' which is not to suggest it's one of the four majors or ever will be.

Woods never won at Sheshan International in four tries. Riviera (eight times) is the only other course he has played more often without winning, although that is not - or should not - be related to his absence. He was not eligible in 2011 and played corporate outings throughout Asia and Australia the next two years. Woods was never expected this time while he recovered from back injuries. He is just now hitting balls to prepare for his own tournament in Florida the first week of December.

The HSBC Champions is celebrating its 10th year with its strongest field - 40 players from the top 50 in the world ranking. That's an increase from 28 of the top 50 when it received WGC status in 2009, and 13 of the top 50 when it began in 2005.

Golf is about star power, however, and it's difficult to consider any field without paying more attention to who isn't playing than who is. And it doesn't help that the three biggest names in golf are not in Shanghai.

Phil Mickelson is not competing again until late January. Rory McIlroy was the big blow. He announced last month that he would miss both events in China because he needed time to prepare for a February court case involving his former management firm. He might even have time to get that wisdom tooth removed.

''Of course it's disappointing,'' Morgan said. ''But it doesn't detract from the tournament. It's their responsibility to turn up and play well. It's our responsibility to present the stage. ... We have no doubt in the future the world No. 1, whoever it is, will be back. All the great players will. You're always going to lose one or two - we're quite sanguine about that. But we know we have 80 percent of the top players.''

''Yes, some of the top players aren't here, whether because of injury or personal reasons,'' Morgan said. ''The key point is the majority are. And there are great new golfers coming through. We feel there's kind of an evolution going on in golf the last seven or eight years.''

That much is clear.

The host hotel has images of the top players on all the elevator doors - Adam Scott and Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.

Golf is at a stage where it's time to end this fascination that it can't be a big event unless Woods and Mickelson - and now McIlroy - are playing.

Woods turns 39 next month. He will be compelling in any capacity until he stops playing, though he does not look capable of dominating the way he once did because of age, mounting injuries and competition that is younger and stronger.

Mickelson is 44. Time moves on.

A new era is emerging, if it is not already here. Woods has been behind the wheel for two decades, with Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh taking turns riding shotgun.

McIlroy is no longer the heir apparent. Winning four majors at age 25 makes him the next driver. Boy Wonder will never have the level of worldwide appeal as Woods. But what he has is a supporting cast that is stronger and deeper than when Woods ruled the world of golf.

Morgan was agitated a year ago when Wood didn't play because he was in China at the start of the week for an exhibition with McIlroy. That didn't diminish his appreciation of what Woods has meant to golf for two decades, and for the HSBC Champions in its infancy.

Where would the HSBC Champions be today if Woods had never played when it was just getting started?

''Tiger was an enormous catalyst in the growth of the HSBC Champions,'' Morgan said. ''The momentum has taken the sport into a much bigger force than one individual, and that's a great indicator for the strength of a sport when it is greater than one or two individuals.''

Yes, he is disappointed that McIlroy withdrew, Mickelson is resting and Woods is recovering from an injury.

''But we've got momentum behind us,'' Morgan said. ''We're beyond needing a player to turn up to get some PR and instant gratification and media coverage. We're not interested in that. We're interested in genuine growth of the sport. And we're sitting on top of a fantastic new chapter.''

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