AUGUSTA, GA. — No matter who wins this week, the 78th Masters Tournament will likely be remembered for its notably-absent iconic figures.
For starters, four-time Masters champion and world No. 1 Tiger Woods will miss the tournament for the first time in his professional career. He is expected to be sidelined much of the season after back surgery.
And don’t forget about Augusta National Golf Club’s most famous “arbor” member – the Eisenhower Tree, which was removed over the winter after suffering extensive damage from an unseasonable ice storm.
It’s easy to confuse the two. One had limbs crumbling in open area along the 17th hole. The other had crumbling limbs throughout his body.
The golf ball-gobbling tree won’t be missed, says many of the golfers.
“I think people will miss him at the start of the week. But by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, there’s going to be a worthy winner and it will produce a lot of excitement,” Northern Ireland star Rory McIlory said.
“Will he be missed then by the fans? I’m not sure.”
Make no mistake, Woods’ sheer presence adds a substantial starch to the tournament buzz. He has made the cut in 18 consecutive appearances, winning the Masters title in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005.
He is a 14-time major champion, in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors. And he has been the sport’s transcendent athlete over the past 15 years.
With that being said, Woods has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South Course in La Jolla, Calif. And as dominant as he has been at the Masters in the past, he hasn’t seriously contended over the past five years.
“Tiger can switch it on like that, but also with his form … I don’t think people would have said that he was the red-hot (Masters) favorite as he was in years past,” reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said. “It’s a shame. Obviously for him on a personal level, it’s never nice having to watch the tournament when you’re banged up and hurt a little bit.”
The real question that could be answered this week is whether this up-and-coming generation of stars, led by McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, can close the door on the 38-year-old Woods’ days of supremacy for good.
Rose was asked this week about what he considered to be his prime years in golf to win multiple major titles. He gave a candid response.
“When I was 30, I said the next 10 years – I’m either going to do it or I’m not,” Rose said. “From 30 (years old) to 40, that really is the time to do it. You don’t want to be looking too much into your late 30s, early 40s to be trying to achieve your career goals.”
That is what makes this week’s Masters so riveting – any of a number of younger golfers could be considered the favorite. The field is that deep and accomplished.
And it is also what makes it sad: Woods will have to sit, watch, wait … and wonder.
“(The perception) has changed now,” Spieth said. “I was not out here when he was as dominant as he was percentage-wise. I know that now with the younger guys, we are not scared to win.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442