Phil, Tiger's Masters dominance nearing an end


Spring feels more like autumn with the arrival of this year’s Masters.

The chill in the morning air at Augusta National portends winter more than it does spring this time around.

Fallen, dying leaves rustling past the feet of players would be more apropos this year than dogwoods and azaleas blooming. There is, after all, this ominous sense that we’re approaching the end of a season rather than the beginning of one.

That’s because we’re acutely aware that the end of an era may be at hand.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have had more to say about who wins the Masters in the last 20 years than anyone in the game, but those days appear to be nearing an end.

They’ve combined to win seven of the last 17 Masters. Even when they weren’t winning, they were contending. Did you know there hasn’t been a Masters without Woods or Mickelson finishing in the top five since 1999? Or that they have both finished T-10 or better in seven of the last 14 Masters? In fact, there hasn’t been a Masters without Woods or Mickelson finishing in the top 10 since 1994.

Their shadows fall prominently over the Masters next week. Since the turn of the century, they have been Larry Bird and Magic Johnson there.

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Tiger and Lefty haven’t merely won a lot at the Masters. They’ve awed us with spectacular shots there. From Woods’ impossible, circuitous chip-in for birdie at the 16th on his way to winning in ‘05, to Mickelson’s threading the trees from the pine straw to make birdie at the 13th on his way to winning in ’10, they’ve produced riveting theater.

In ’05, Mickelson put the green jacket on Woods in the trophy presentation. In ’06, Woods put it on Mickelson.

The days the Masters revolved around Woods and Mickelson may not quite be over, but we all know we’re getting to the end of the book now. We don’t know how many pages are left in this story, but we know there aren’t many.

With Woods, 38, unable to play while recovering from back surgery, and with Mickelson, 43, playing through his own injury issues, this Masters will begin with the feeling it is as much about the magic no longer possible as it is the magic still possible.

“There's probably not another player in the history of sports – it’s arguable – that has had as big an impact on his sport as Tiger, as far as viewership and ratings and money,” said Paul Azinger, the 12-time PGA Tour winner who will help call the Masters for ESPN. “Maybe Muhammad Ali, in boxing. I just can't think of anybody, that when he's not there, the void is any greater in any sport.”

This will be the first Tiger-less Masters since 1994.

“It's a huge disappointment for us in the business of TV,” Azinger said. “There's going to be a day when Tiger is just not around anymore, period. The shock, disappointment and the reason he's not here, I think it will present a little bit of a challenge, possibly, at first, but once that tournament gets going, the Masters carries its own weight and everybody will be fine.”

While Mickelson’s appearance at the Masters seemed uncertain after he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with a pulled oblique muscle last weekend, he’s looking ready at the Shell Houston Open this week. Still, the question looms over just how his body will continue to hold up. He withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open with pain in his back early in the year.

Healthy or not, Tiger and Lefty haven't been quite right all season.

There's probably not one player that would have said, going into the Masters, ‘I wish I hit it like Tiger Woods,’” Azinger said.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson has won this year. That’s just the second time in 20 years that one or the other hasn’t arrived at Augusta National with a victory already in hand for the season.

“It might be one of the most open Masters we've had where there are so many different guys that could win,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North, who also will help on ESPN’s broadcast of the Masters. “I just think you look at Phil, he's been a mess lately. He’s hurt a little bit, but he was there practicing the last couple days. He drives down Magnolia Lane, and the switch goes on, and there's no better place for him to play than there. And if his back is doing well, I think he's going to be a threat there before the week is up.”

Mickelson hasn’t been a threat all year. In six starts, he has two WDs and a missed cut. His best finish is a tie for 16th at WGC-Cadillac.

Woods may not be teeing it up, but he’ll be a big story early in the week. His absence will be palpable.

“I think golf is always better when Tiger is in the conversation,” Rory McIlroy said at the Shell Houston Open this week. “And even though he’s not playing, he’s still in the conversation.”

No Tiger? Questions over Lefty’s readiness? It leaves the door open in what’s been a wide open year on the PGA Tour. The winners of the last six PGA Tour events provide a disconcerting feel for what golf could be like without Woods and Mickelson. Henley, Hadley, Reed, Senden, Every and Bowditch. It’s not exactly a Murderer’s Row of golf.

“I don’t think it’s just the Masters, but golf in general is just very wide open,” McIlroy said.

Woods’ surgery may prove regenerating, but there are going to be doubts lingering until his return. Have we seen him contend for his last Masters? Will he be back, with Mickelson rejuvenated, too? Even the game’s insightful experts can’t be sure.

“I got sick [with cancer] when I was in the prime of my career,” Azinger said. “Tiger is a little bit past his prime. I was out for six months or so, and I tell you what, I lost my edge. It was nice to be home. I was the kind of guy, I played with a chip on my shoulder. Tiger plays with a chip on his shoulder, a little bit, for whatever reason. His challenge now will be: How self-motivated is he going to be?

“You know, when Tiger was an amateur, his dad said Tiger Woods will win 14 majors. Well, he has won 14 majors. I don't know why Earl didn't say 19, but he said 14.”

It’s among the reasons this Masters will begin with the feeling it’s more like autumn than spring.