AUGUSTA, Ga. – The pall was as real as the water trickling through Rae’s Creek and the traffic inching its way down Washington Road.
Two years ago, just 10 days before the first round, Tiger Woods announced he would not play the Masters, marking the first time since 1994 the four-time winner would not play the year’s first major.
The news that the then-world No. 1 wouldn’t play created a chorus of concern, some even going so far as to question the event’s relevance without him.
Last Friday the now-world No. 476 posted a similar message on his website.
“I've been hitting balls and training daily, but I'm not physically ready,” Woods wrote. “I've said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what's best for my long-term health and career. Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn't be the right decision.”
Although it’s a similar injury, multiple back procedures performed late last year, and Woods’ relevance at Augusta National is far from diminished, this time is different.
This time there are no headlines lamenting Woods’ absence, no handwringing about the future of the game without its biggest star, no foreboding predictions that the event will be an afterthought without a red shirt leading the way on Sunday.
Much of that tempered reaction is the byproduct of a lineup of young stars who are as compelling as they are competitive.
Jordan Spieth’s victory last year at the Masters began to change the narrative and his run through the major championship season is still being digested. Jason Day’s breakthrough last year at the PGA Championship, followed by impressively consistent play ever since – including back-to-back victories in his last two PGA Tour starts – solidified his status as a bona fide star.
Although he’s yet to win this year, Rory McIlroy – who would complete the career Grand Slam with a victory this week – has more finishes inside the top 6 (four) this season than outside (three); and Rickie Fowler continues to inch closer to his first major as evidenced by his impressive victory over a deep field earlier this year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
It’s taken a village, but golf without Tiger Woods has not been as bleak as originally predicted.
Woods’ sabbatical has also been dulled by the reality that he has played a full Tour schedule just twice since 2012 because of an assortment of injuries.
Whatever the reasons, the result is a list of varying degrees of favorites that stretches 10 to 15 players deep depending on who you ask.
This isn’t to say Woods is a complete afterthought this week, it’s just a question of embracing the new norm, as evidenced by Phil Mickelson’s answer when asked about the missing star.
“Well, it's not like we shared a house together, so I don't notice it that way,” Lefty joked. “But the Tour misses him. The game misses him. Hopefully he'll get back to his winning ways. It was only a few years ago he won five times in a year, so it's not like he's that far off.”
But then missing him as a fan and as a fellow competitor is two different things.
“As a player, no, I don't like getting beat by Tiger all the time. I mean, it sucked,” Day said. “But as a fan, it was fantastic golf to watch.”
On Tuesday, the man Woods is most often compared to was asked about the missing major champion. Jack Nicklaus didn’t miss a Masters from 1959 to ’98 and he explained that, unlike Tiger, he never dealt with the kind of injuries that Woods has.
As he’s quick to point out, however, Nicklaus – who won his final major at age 46 at Augusta National in 1986 – doesn’t subscribe to the theory that Woods’ best days are behind him.
“He's got to show up for his 1980 [when Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at 40 years old] and his 1986. I think he'll show up for that a little bit,” Nicklaus said.
Woods’ shadow continues to loom large over Augusta National. Asked a random question about playing certain holes, Paul Casey quickly lapsed into a Tiger anecdote.
“I played with Tiger the first or second year I was in and we’re walking down [No.] 11 and I said, ‘Good thing I watched the Masters as a kid and saw those shots. Thanks to you I will never get to hit them,’” the Englishman laughed, referring to the changes made to Augusta National following Woods’ historic 1997 victory.
Woods also made a cameo at Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, tweeting, “Pretty cool that at dinner tonight three of us sitting next to each other have won a combined 14 green jackets,” and reports from the event suggest he’s closer to a return to competition than some may think.
“Last night, he looked good. He looked better than me,” said Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who recently underwent his own back surgery. “I could tell the fire is building back up in his belly, and I suspect Tiger's going to be back fairly quickly.”
The difference this time, unlike two years ago there is an unstated understanding that the Masters, that golf marches forward with or without Tiger.