AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods isn’t here. This isn’t a news flash. He wasn’t here last year or two years prior to that, either.
Twenty years after he changed this tournament, this place and this game, the Masters will go on without him. It’s the kind of thing that causes television executives in New York and secondary ticket brokers out on Augusta’s Washington Road to weep.
For everyone else, it’s a shrug.
Gone are the days of everyone talking about Tiger not being here or wondering when Tiger is coming back or talking much about Tiger at all.
The 81st Masters starts Thursday morning and the run-up has focused on the potentially wild weather, Jordan Spieth’s redemption from last year, Jason Day’s sick mother, Dustin Johnson’s run of hot play, the newly constructed media center, Lexi Thompson, Arnold Palmer passing away last year, Donald Trump being president and pretty much everything but Tiger Woods.
“Regrettably … the [warm] weather [caused] our normally spectacular azaleas and other flowers to bloom three weeks early,” Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said in his annual remarks, touching on another big topic.
Payne did note the 20th anniversary of Woods’ dramatic 1997 Masters championship and said that “like his millions of fans around the world, we wish him well and look forward to seeing him return for many more healthy and competitive Masters appearances.”
Other than that … not much. Tiger is not quite forgotten, but fans are still flocking here, despite uncertain weather. Tickets for Sunday’s final round are going for a minimum of $1,300 on StubHub, up actually from the average Sunday price of the last four years ($1,163).
Everyone agrees that the 2017 Masters would be better with Tiger Woods in the field, but at this stage of his career, this deep into an endless recovery, what else can everyone do but move on? He isn’t here and he may never be here again – aside from jetting in and jetting out for the annual champion’s dinner, a shindig the public doesn’t get to see.
“Some days I have good days; some days I have bad days,” Mark O’Meara relayed to The Golf Channel what Woods told him at Tuesday night’s dinner.
The pain, O’Meara said, “is pretty much in the same area in his lower back that he’s had the surgeries on. But he’s such a competitor that he can’t come out and play half of what he did.”
At 41, Woods is too young to take a ceremonial role, such as hitting the first tee shot Thursday morning with Jack Nicklaus.
If Spieth and Rory and DJ and Rickie and Bubba and the rest aren’t good enough for you, if you’re going to skip the Master’s because Tiger isn’t here, well, then that’s on you. It promises to be a heck of a shootout, with swirling gusty winds Thursday just adding to the fun.
“Certainly he’s a great addition when he is competing,” Phil Mickelson said. “He creates a lot of interest. He’s exciting and fun to watch and play with, and he’s fun to compete with. His lack of presence here is difficult because he would bring so much to the tournament.”
Everything used to be centered on Tiger, and for good reason. The Masters was his playground, an electrifying act amid the Georgia pines. TV numbers soared. Gallery noise roared.
From 2000-11 he delivered 10 top-six finishes, including three victories (to go with that 1997 Green Jacket). Tiger marching up and down the hills of Augusta, clad in red, followed by a mob of fans, made it a golden era here.
It’s all but over now. Since August 2015, Woods has played a grand total of two rounds on the PGA Tour – missing the cut at January’s Farmers Insurance Open.
“I have no timetable for my return,” Woods said last week in a statement on his website where he announced he was not healthy enough to play this week.
It’s unfortunate because it would have been fun having Tiger rekindling the memories of 1997, when he upended the sport with a historic 18-under par victory. That was one of the most significant weekends in the history of golf. If nothing else, his presence could have served as a celebration of it. Maybe he would have willed himself into Sunday contention again. Maybe if he stayed healthy he’d be pressing for Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.
Maybe he would have done something the game had never seen before.
Instead he’ll be watching what he inspired: the slew of former kids from around the world who followed him in his prime and took up the game of golf. Woods didn’t deliver the wave of diversity to the PGA Tour that many expected, but he did create an environment where players train more and compete harder and continue to push the sport.
That’s the center of discussion now.
Tucked along a wall of the Augusta National grill room is a display case of clubs used by former champions. The King Cobra Driver Tiger swung in 1997 sits next to the relics of bygone greats such as Arnold Palmer’s 1-iron (1958) and Ben Hogan’s 4-wood (1951).
It looks old. Outside was where the action was.
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