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Tiger Woods plays 2nd fiddle to Jordan Spieth and absent Rory McIlroy at the British Open

Tiger Woods, to the surprise of many, is not the lead story heading into this week’s British Open.

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Tiger Woods’ game may be rounding into form just in time to contend (some believe he could even win his fourth Claret Jug) this week at St. Andrews, but he’ll enter the Open Championship in an unfamiliar position: the back seat.

Woods -- looking up from way below the Mendoza line in the world rankings at Nos. 1 and 2, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth -- has ceded the wheel to the youngsters who are driving the conversation and the sport ahead of the 2015 British Open. So much so that despite indications that he may be on the brink of a miraculous comeback from injuries and shaggy play, a recent Open teleconference was two-thirds done before a reporter raised the subject of Eldrick.

"Congratulations!" ESPN’s British Open anchor Mike Tirico proclaimed. "It took 42 minutes for a Tiger question."

In a sign of how far Woods' fortunes have fallen in the wake of awful early-season results and a terrible turn at the U.S. Open, consider that almost entire conference calls used to wrap up before golfers other than Woods would get their due, almost as afterthoughts. A reporter only raised the name of the former world No. 1 with the penultimate query during a nearly hour-long Golf Channel phone presser.

"I actually made the mistake last year of suggesting that Tiger would be the lead story of every major until he decides to retire," said Paul Azinger, who -- alongside Tirico, Andy North, Curtis Strange and the rest of the ESPN unit -- will broadcast the four-day tournament from St. Andrews. "Well, that's obviously not the case this week since it took 42 minutes to even get to Tiger Woods. The lead story is Spieth and maybe Rory McIlroy's injury. "

With McIlroy still a hot topic of conversation after blowing out his left ankle and missing the event, and Spieth going for his third straight major, Woods and his issues seem like yesterday’s headlines. In fact, before the increasingly less inevitable Tiger question arose in each of the two telechats, pundits referred to Woods only as historical references -- as in, whether such a thing as a Spieth-McIlroy rivalry exists in what Tirico called the "post-Tiger era."

Though Tiger may have tumbled as precipitously down the talking-heads agenda as he has the world rankings, longtime Woods watchers suggest you ignore him at your peril.

"I would never, ever personally write Tiger off with respect to anything until he decides to quit," said Azinger, who added that if Woods "can take his game out of the laboratory and go to the golf course" he can "be the best player again."

One prominent stat from Woods’ stint at The Old White TPC had others sitting up and taking notice as well. Tiger, who did not exactly scare the leaders by finishing T32 at the Greenbrier, topped the field in average proximity to the hole, the best in his career.

That means that Woods’ flag-hunting at the Greenbrier was more successful than it was in the 45 tour events he has won since 2003.

"It’s the best I’ve hit it in a very long time," Woods said after missing just two fairways and three greens in his final British Open tuneup. "I had it shaped both ways, right to left, left to right. I had it all on call today."

Though Woods may have bested his peers in approach shots, he failed to convert enough of his opportunities because of his putting at Greenbrier, where he ranked 52nd in strokes gained-putting.

"If I just made a couple putts," rued Woods, whose average approach shot came up some 24 feet from the cup, "this week could have been completely different."

Performing on the dance floor was not the only shaky part of Woods’ repertoire that had Strange -- who pointed out the danger that lurks in the "these little pot bunkers that you didn’t even know existed" for someone as errant off the tee as Woods has been -- not buying it.

"Nothing would surprise me," said the winner of two U.S. Opens. "I'd love to see him come back just to see the comeback story. But he hasn't done anything other than some good play [at Greenbrier], some good iron play, to think he would contend."

Nor was North all-in on Woods’ chances at St. Andrews, where the 14-time major champion cruised to eight-shot and five-shot victories in 2000 and 2005, respectively, and which would seem to set up perfectly for Tiger.

"He is going to a golf course that every single hole he can picture good things happening on that hole because he's done it," said North, who also owns two U.S. Open titles.

Predicting Woods’ play this week was a crapshoot, since the winner of 79 PGA Tour events last lifted a trophy almost two years ago. His much-lauded first bogey-free final round since 2013 came on a soft Greenbrier course where scoring was almost universally low.

"I don't have any idea what to expect, for the first time in his career," North, speaking for many, opined.