AUGUSTA: Tiger Woods is absent from the Masters for the first time in his career this week, but that has not stopped him from being one of the hottest topics at Augusta National. What will it mean for a tournament he has come to symbolize since first competing as an amateur in 1995? How bad is his latest back injury and will he be fit enough to take part in the US Open at Pinehurst in June and the British Open at Hoylake in July? Will he ever succeed in achieving his lifelong ambition to surpass the records of 18 majors and six Masters won by Jack Nicklaus?
The questions surrounding golf's biggest draw are many and varied and opinions are easily forthcoming. "Sad to say I'm missing the Masters," Woods tweeted on April 1 in connection with a story on his website announcing he had undergone successful surgery on a pinched nerve in his lower back. And his sadness has been wholly replicated this week by his peers and rivals lining up to take part in the 78th playing of golf's most prestigious tournament. "Yeah, it's disappointing. It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it?" said old foe Phil Mickelson, seeking his fourth green jacket this week. "He has been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the Majors. It's awkward to not have him here."
"I hope he gets back soon. I mean, I hope he's back for the other majors, and as much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win." Those feelins were echoed by veteran Steve Stricker, a close friend of Woods who has formed a potent partnership with him at both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. "I think the absence of him not being here is tough on the tournament," he said. "Any time he's in the tournament, he draws so much more attention. We're all going to miss him here. The tournament, I'm sure, is going to miss him. Players to some extent will miss him but then they are like, hey, he's not here, so it's one less guy you have to beat, too." So whether or not Woods will be missed this week in Georgia is not up for question with players and fans, but the general feeling is that the Masters magic will once again work it wonders and produce superb back-nine entertainment come Sunday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy, who has been installed as the betting favorite in Woods' absence agrees that some of the "buzz" will go out of the atmosphere for the fans. "But you know, as a player, it doesn't really make any difference. As a fan, it's always better to have him in the golf tournament. But no matter who is in contention or who is going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish regardless of who is there." Australian Adam Scott, aiming to become the first back-to-back winner of the Masters since Woods himself in 2002, said that his absence would be "a huge loss."
"But it's the nature of sports, and guys get injured and it's an unfortunate timing for that. "But, as every year here, this event produces something special no matter what. 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." What the future has in store for Woods, no one really knows, but with his 40th birthday just 20 months away, everyone agrees that time is beginning to run out for him and his quest to match Nicklaus. "Tiger, I mean Tiger's been around for so long. He's 38 now. He's an old man," joked Jason Day, who many favor to make it back-to-back Australian wins at the Masters.
"He's getting older now and the body just doesn't react the same as it did when he was 21. It's sad to see him hurt." Still there were words of encouragement from another living legend in the shape of Arnold Palmer. "As Tiger continues on his personal physique and ability to work and stay healthy, I don't see any reason in the world why he will not come back and potentially do the things that he has had the desire to do," Palmer said.
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