AUGUSTA, Ga. — Welcome to the Tiger-free Masters. For the second time in three years, Tiger Woods is missing this tournament. We probably should start getting used to this, but let’s be honest: it’s weird.
Tiger is golf. Or at least he was golf. Now he’s the ghost of golf, the game’s greatest player whose back finally gave out, the cautionary tale now hovering over the first men’s major of the year as the most important player who isn’t here.
He’s missing, but he’s still very much present. There isn’t a news conference that goes by where his name doesn’t come up. The praise showered upon him by the young men who grew up idolizing him, the same men who are now taking over the game from him, is laudatory and enlightening. It’s part press conference, part oral history.
Tiger is gone, but he’s definitely not forgotten. Having recently turned 40, he is unable to play due to his bad back, but definitely not anywhere close to retired. As I said, it’s weird.
Phil Mickelson was asked Tuesday afternoon if it seems strange to him when Tiger misses a major tournament.
“Well, it’s not like we shared a house together, so I don’t notice it that way,” Mickelson said with a laugh.
Then he grew serious.
“I think we all appreciate what he’s done for the game of golf over the years,” he said. “We all miss him and want him back. He’s a big part of the game even when he’s not playing. So fortunately, I’ve heard from reports that he’s going to be able to play this year, which is great. We would love him to be here. … The Tour misses him. The game misses him. Hopefully he’ll get back to his winning ways.”
Tiger is like a Jeopardy answer here this week: he appears only in the form of a question. The youngsters speak about him in the past tense, one after another: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy.
“It was fantastic golf to watch,” said Day, the 2015 PGA champion who has won his last two starts on tour this year. ”I mean, he did things that no one else could do: hit shots around the greens, shots from way off the green, approaches. It was just amazing what he could do as an athlete in our sport. He changed the game of golf for the better.
“And now, you see the results of it,” he continued. “Because of what Tiger did back in the day, there’s numbers and numbers of guys that are young that got into the game of golf. The way that Arnold Palmer started the next generation and that generation started the next generation, and then finally Tiger Woods started our generation.”
See what I mean about the use of past tense?
At 35, Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, is closer to Tiger’s age than Day’s (28), yet he still is an integral part of the younger generation.
“The highlight reel, I watch it on YouTube at times, is endless, of all the great stuff that he has done,” Scott said of Woods. “I was really fortunate to get some front row seats at times to getting to play with him throughout those years and watching it close up. I think he made us believe it was going to go forever and ever. That was the incredible thing. You know, that’s probably not the reality of it, but it went for such a long period of time that we thought it was.”
Let’s not leave out four-time major winner McIlroy, still only 26, who found himself talking about the parity of today’s game.
“It is much different than the years Tiger dominated from ’97 to 2005 or 2007,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to see a 10-year stretch of golf like that in our lifetime. What he did in that time span was amazing.”
To be sure, Woods isn’t done yet. But he is missing what always is his best chance annually to win a major tournament by not being here this week.
Check that. He actually was here. He came in for the Masters Champions Dinner Tuesday evening.
Tiger Woods, Masters dinner guest. Now that’s a title that will take some getting used to.