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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2008

Woods' absence gives chance to others


CROMWELL, Conn. - Tiger Woods has never played the Travelers Championship and wasn't planning to be in Connecticut even before his knee injury.

But his decision to undergo season-ending surgery dominated the conversation at the TPC River Highlands yesterday as players contemplated a Tiger-free PGA Tour.

"I think you're going to see some guys win who maybe haven't won in a while," said Ben Curtis, the 2003 British Open champion. "It's going to give guys a golden opportunity to go out there and do something good."

The first chance to do that comes in Cromwell this week on a course that has a recent history of jump-starting careers.

Connecticut's J.J. Henry got his only tour win at River Highlands in 2006. Hunter Mahan earned his first tour victory a year ago, making a birdie on the first playoff hole to capture the title over journeyman Jay Williamson.

Today, 156 players will begin competing for a $6 million purse and a $1.08 million first-place check.

Recently in danger of losing its spot on the tour, the event has added numerous amenities for players, including a new $4.5 million, 23-acre practice facility that opened this spring.

That facility has a 360-yard driving range with 110,000 square feet of tee space, fairway bunkers, and about a half-dozen greens to aim for; a 13,000-square foot chipping area; and an 11,000-square-foot putting green.

"It was one of the worst practice facilities and has gone to one of the best, and that makes a huge difference," said Jerry Kelly, a former University of Hartford player. "In a lot of ways, it's going to help the tournament get fields, but it's also going to bring more people in because they're going to be around the players more."

The tournament also offered a free ride to every player and two family members on a charter flight that took them from the U.S. Open in San Diego to Hartford on Monday. About 40 players took advantage of the offer.

"We were extremely lucky to have a plane with DirecTV on it, so we got to watch the playoff and stuff," Mahan said. "It was pretty neat."

Three of the top 10 on the FedEx Cup points list and nine of the top 30 are in Connecticut this week.

The tournament took three hits this week, starting with a decision by Rocco Mediate to withdraw after Monday's playoff with Woods.

Yesterday, 2005 champion Brad Faxon withdrew because of lingering problems with his right knee, and former Masters champion Zach Johnson pulled out because of a wrist injury.

Kenny Perry comes in as the tournament's highest-ranked player at No. 6 on the points list, just ahead of Stewart Cink and Vijay Singh.

"It's better than I thought," Perry said of the field. "I think it's a pretty strong field. I was quite impressed with the guys who decided to come here."

Curtis said the absence of other top players isn't a reflection on the tournament. Playing in a major is mentally exhausting and a lot of guys want a break after that, especially when the next event is 3,000 miles away, he said.

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