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Searching for Tiger Woods 2.0

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Adam Scott called it "a big loss." Justin Rose said it was "a shame." Phil Mickelson described it as "awkward." Jason Day went with, "a little sad."

For the first time since he became the undisputed megastar of golf nearly two decades ago, Tiger Woods isn't here at the Masters, and everyone not only knows it, they are lamenting it.

The path to a green jacket may be one player easier with Woods recovering from back surgery, but there isn't a golfer on the PGA Tour who doesn't understand what he's meant for the sport (and their paychecks).

Perhaps most importantly, they know that going forward, golf needs to have at least one crossover personality, and right now most of the sport's biggest stars are over 40 or injured.

"I think any sport benefits from a dominant figure like that … to maybe be the legend," McIlroy said here Tuesday. "Like LeBron James, for example, in basketball or Cristiano Ronaldo in football or [Lionel] Messi. It's been Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal in tennis. People like that. People that win on a regular basis and people you can sort of look up to [and] have [as] heroes."

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Patrick Reed celebrates after winning at TPC Blue Monster earlier this year. (USA TODAY Sports)

Woods, 38, is expected to return to action sometime this summer, but as injuries and age continue to plague him, it becomes increasingly important for one of these younger players to step into the void and show the public the sport will continue. After all, Tigerless Masters are, at some point, the future.

Someone needs to replace him the way he replaced Tom Watson or Jack Nicklaus and they replaced Arnold Palmer who replaced Ben Hogan and so on. Just as LeBron took the reigns from Michael who took it from Magic and Larry.

This is all easier mapped out than done.

There have been 18 winners in the last 21 PGA Tour events – basically everyone taking turns. This Masters is considered as wide open as ever, with McIlroy claiming as many as 70 guys could win and Mickelson saying that depending on weather, it could be about 50.

There is a remarkable depth of talent on the tour, perhaps greater than ever. That's a good thing, except when it comes to driving interest among casual fans that like to see familiar faces in contention on Sundays, preferably against each other. Sustained greatness is always good in sports.

"Every big event, [Tiger] is always there," Day said.

Golf is tough, though. You can't just market a star. A top-20 NBA player is a perennial all-star and the best player on his team. A top-20 golfer is just another good golfer. In this case (per the world golf rankings), that's Ian Poulter, a very capable player but not someone who is moving the needle.

Superstardom can't be created. It has to be seized. Yet it takes a certain mindset, a certain kind of competitor, to be capable of seizing it. Whether that person exists in the modern game when you can become fabulously wealthy without ever actually winning a tournament is anyone's guess.

No one is better positioned for dominance than McIlroy, who already has two majors at just 24 years old. He is a known name, has a winning personality and a bit of flair to his game.

He isn't Tiger though.

"I never started playing golf to become a transcendent athlete," McIlroy said. "… I never pictured myself being at that level. All I wanted to do was be a great golfer."

Woods most certainly did envision becoming as big a star as he did. He made it his goal at a young age and still holds on dearly to it. That mindset meant something, not just in fueling his drive to win tournaments (79 on the Tour, including 14 majors), but in the intense, intimidating way he golfed, which permeated through television screens and thrilled fans globally.

McIlroy said he is coming to terms with it, growing into the expectations of greatness. It's a process, he said. Golf will have to take it.

"Am I uncomfortable with that position? No," McIlroy said. "… Did it take me awhile to come to terms with it? Yes, because it's not something you ever thought starting out your career you were going to have to have to deal with or handle."

This is why so many eyes in the sport are focused on 23-year-old Patrick Reed, who has never played in a major, yet boldly declared himself a "top-five" golfer earlier this year. Plenty snickered at the statement. Others realized that he at least has the mentality to go big. Whether the game is there to match remains to be seen.

"I'm very confident," said Reed, who claims he is approaching his first major as just another event and Augusta National as just another course.

He pointed to quotes from Gary Player and Michael Jordan supporting his top-5 comment as proof that such thinking is required to achieve true greatness. He doesn't really care what fans, media or even other golfers think.

"You have all of these top athletes [who] don't have a problem with it," Reed said. "You have to feel and believe in yourself to be successful, and that's all it is. I believe in myself."

Big talk. Big personality. Big performance. For nearly two decades Tiger was a one-man show that routinely delivered all of that on the biggest of stages, pushing the sport to greater and richer heights.

Now he's not here, and the Masters in particular – and golf in general – looks for not just who's next but who even wants the job.

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