AUGUSTA, Ga. – Welcome to the missing Masters.
Perhaps Thursday’s ceremonial send off by Jack, Arnie and Gary will wrest things back onto script - action between the ropes has a tendency of dominating the conversation when the whistle sounds - but the buzz surrounding this year’s event on the eve of opening day has been akin to a bizarre version of “Where’s Waldo?”
Forget the favorites, the first-timers, the flawless golf course. The headline this week has been about what is missing from the manicured grounds – a pair of iconic giants felled by time and pressure.
Gone from this year’s proceedings are Tiger Woods and the Eisenhower Tree, one was “irreparably” damaged by an ice storm in February while the jury is still out on the former.
“I half expected to show up this week and see a bigger tree,” smiled Steve Stricker when asked about the missing loblolly pine that had guarded the left side of the 17th fairway.
Whether Woods returns a better player remains to be seen, but his empty locker in the Champions Locker Room was a stark reminder of the significance of his absence.
The last time Woods missed a Masters, Jordan Spieth, among this week’s lengthy list of possible contenders, was 8 months old. Rory McIlroy, the betting favorite, was 5 and the golf course played to just 6,925 yards.
The Masters was the one major Woods had never missed in his career, the one place that defied injury and ignominy.
In 2009 he tied for sixth fresh off the DL for a broken leg and ailing knee. In 2010 he finished fourth in his first tournament following a scandal that led to a divorce and a five-month hiatus from professional golf.
Through it all, Woods was as much a part of the Masters as blooming azaleas and rules. His first victory in 1997 was historic, a 12-stroke romp that changed the game, while his 2001 triumph was equally tectonic because of how it prompted officials to change the golf course, an overhaul widely dubbed “Tiger proofing.”
All total, Woods has won the Masters four times, the same number of times he’s finished outside the top 10 as a professional. Augusta National, more so than any of the four Grand Slam gatherings, has always been central to the theme of Tiger’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories.
It’s why this week is historically hollow. And why conversations from the towering oak tree behind the clubhouse to Amen Corner have fixated on the missing major winner.
Nearly every player who marched into the press center this week was asked about Woods. Some, like Phil Mickelson, didn’t need to be asked about the empty spot on the tee sheet.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson asked unprovoked. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I hope he’s back for the other majors. As much as I want to win – and I know how great he is and tough to beat – it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”
It only adds to the intrigue - or emptiness depending on one’s point of view - that Mickelson could match Woods with four green jackets with a victory this week, that Woods could be dethroned atop the Official World Golf Ranking by not one but three players depending on the math and Sunday’s outcome, that McIlroy could come within one leg of a career Grand Slam with a victory.
Even in his absence, Woods’ shadow looms large over the manicured grounds for competitors, patrons and officials.
“We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world. What I like best about Tiger no matter where he is on a specific day he is such a competitor. He is always a threat to do well and win. He could putt the greens blindfolded, so we miss him very much,” club chairman Billy Payne said.
Even on Woods’ worst day at Augusta National he has found a way to compete as evidenced by his tie for fourth in 2010 when he began his season at the Masters amid plenty of distractions and little preparation.
Regardless of form, Woods’ Augusta aura always remained unchanged by time or circumstance.
“We all know his record around here. When he’s playing well, he wouldn’t be your No. 1 pick to have breathing down your neck on the back nine at Augusta would he?” Henrik Stenson said.
“Of course he’s going to be missed at this event and he would’ve been one of the challengers whether he’s playing his absolute best or playing average. You would still not count him out around this golf course.”
The conversation will change - it always does - the golf course will see to that. But for three days this Masters has been about what’s missing, what’s different.
It’s not better or worse, just different.