Golfer Tiger Woods signs copies of his new book in New York, Monday, March 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig
March 21, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Five eligible players are not at the Dell Technologies Match Play this year, the highest number of dropouts in 16 years.

Good luck finding someone at Austin Country Club who can name them all.

No, Tiger Woods is not on that list.

His name still comes up in just about every golf conversation. Woods was making plenty of headlines Monday in New York to promote his book on the 1997 Masters (spoiler alert: he wins by 12). He missed out on qualifying for the 64-man field at Match Play by 665 spots in the world ranking. Woods hasn't been eligible the last three years because he hasn't been playing much due to back surgeries. There's no clear answer when he might play again.

In his latest update from various media interviews, Woods said he hasn't played a round since he shot 77 in Dubai and withdrew with back spasms, though he said he was trying every day to get ready to play because he loves the Masters and knows Augusta National.

Those moments - Woods promoting his book, five no-shows at Match Play - illustrate the state of golf.

There is no one who is close to moving the needle like Woods. That's been the case since the `97 Masters, if not sooner.

On the other hand, there are so many young stars - major champions, world No. 1s - that when some players don't show up, does anyone really notice?

The absentees for this World Golf Championship are all quality players - British Open champion Henrik Stenson, former Masters champion Adam Scott, former U.S. Open champion and Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose, and Rickie Fowler.

Most of that can be attributed to scheduling, and that's particularly true for the other no-show. Adam Hadwin is getting married Friday.

Stenson liked the Match Play better when it was single elimination, not the round-robin group play for three rounds before 16 players move on to the weekend. Even so, a large part of his decision was based on his pre-Masters schedule. That's also true for Rose and Fowler. All three were at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, the first one since Palmer died, and all prefer to play the week before the Masters at the Shell Houston Open.

Scott also is playing Houston. He hasn't played the last three weeks because he is commuting from Australia, where his wife is pregnant with their second child.

Something has to give, and it shouldn't be startling that it's the Match Play.

There are no guarantees in this most fickle format, which means a player can wind up playing seven matches over five days, which is taxing. That's why defending champion Jason Day is not playing a practice round again this year.

Is it a problem? Not necessarily.

The reason it's easy to overlook the absences is the Tiger factor.

Because no one alone dominates the spotlight, the focus shifts toward who is playing instead of who's not. For the Match Play, that would be Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 player, who is trying to become the first to complete a sweep of the four World Golf Championships; Day and Rory McIlroy, the last two winners of this event; and Jordan Spieth, who played college golf at Texas before dropping out to embark on the best start to a PGA Tour career since Woods.

There are enough big names nearly every week. It's been that way for much of the year.

Golf really is in a good place, even if it no longer has Woods, the most celebrated athlete in the world that it enjoyed for so many years.

For the PGA Tour, it's a nice problem to have.

The only two tournaments where the stars were noticeably absent were the Honda Classic (none of the top six in the world were at PGA National) and the Valspar Championship (only two of the top 10 played). McIlroy missed the Honda Classic because he was recovering from a rib injury. If he had played, that would have been enough to change the narrative.

Any talk about no-shows will never stack up to the Match Play in 2001, when it began Jan. 3 in Australia and 38 eligible players chose not to travel Down Under for the chance at playing one match and going home. That was a scheduling problem of a different variety.

Another problem in the early days of Match Play, which dates to 1999, is the stars leaving early. Woods was eliminated on Friday afternoon of the inaugural year, and he was beaten in the first round in 2002, the year Kevin Sutherland won as the No. 62 seed.

Day won last year to reach No. 1 in the world. McIlroy won the year before to remind everyone he was No. 1 in the world.

If not them, there are plenty of others to carry the load.

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