As everyone knows by now, one of Augusta National Golf Club’s most iconic figures will be missing as the 78th Masters begins Thursday.
The void is noticeable. Part of the tournament’s "history and tradition," as Jason Day said, is absent. Steve Stricker wryly cited the loss of "a thorn in most players’ side." Mike Weir said the difference the golfers are sensing is "certainly an eye-opener."
Players to watch
Adam Scott » Repeat winners are rare, but he might be capable.
Jason Day » Scott opened the door for Aussies winning at Augusta.
Rory McIlroy » The story about his childhood summer in Utah would be retold.
Matt Kuchar » The former Georgia Tech golfer would be a popular champion.
Phil Mickelson » He played poorly last year, which was unusual.
Yeah, Tiger Woods is gone, sidelined by back surgery.
But what really distinguishes this Masters is the huge space along the left side of the 17th fairway, where the legendary Eisenhower Tree was lost to an ice storm in February.
That’s the story this week. Reading the transcripts from the formal interviews of golfers at Augusta National has been interesting, with slightly more questions about the Tree than about Woods.
That’s both remarkable and refreshing, actually. This tournament is so much bigger than Tiger, even as a winner of four green jackets. He might be the only reason that some people tune into a standard-issue PGA Tour event, but I just can’t believe that’s true of the Masters.
Woods’ latest injury interrupts his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, and that takes away a natural story angle. Tiger always will be an intriguing subject in the majors, as his search for another victory — now approaching six years — continues, and the focus on him will intensify if ever gets No. 15.
But he’s not playing this week and, wouldn’t you know, they’re still staging the tournament. Will he be missed? Yes, in the sense that the Nicklaus chase is not part of the weekend’s drama. As an avowed protector of Jack’s record, that’s both a relief and a letdown to me, because there’s no outcome to cheer against this weekend. If I could do it over, I probably wouldn’t stick those pins in the back of the doll with the red shirt and "TW" logo black cap, because I wouldn’t want injuries to be the biggest reason Woods fails to catch Nicklaus.
Yet even with Tiger’s 14-and-counting titles as part of the buildup to every major, those tournaments have delivered plenty of good stories lately. And that will be true again this week, I promise. It is the Masters, after all.
"This event produces something special, no matter what," said defending champion Adam Scott. "It just has a way of doing it, and it’s not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event anyway."
Stricker acknowledged, "Any time he’s in the field, it makes it a better tournament."
That’s a fair point, and there’s no question Tiger drives interest in the PGA Tour when he’s playing well. But having experienced the Masters, I understand why the Eisenhower Tree’s absence is a bigger story. Being there really makes you appreciate the history and tradition, with a venue that transcends the players themselves.
The tournament is unique among the majors, because it’s staged every April at Augusta National. Even viewers who have never walked the course feel an attachment to it and know all about the landmarks, like the tree that President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted removed from the 17th fairway because his drives kept hitting it during his frequent visits to the club.
That’s the sort of lore that makes Augusta National and the Masters so endearing. So much great stuff has happened there — some of it performed by Tiger Woods, but not all of it — that the tournament endures, with a changing cast.
Arnold Palmer’s ceremonial drive Thursday will mark the 50th anniversary of his last major triumph, and then everybody else will take a shot at a green jacket. Whoever wins it will have earned it, even while Tiger’s away.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.