Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson era coming to an end at the Masters

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were nowhere in sight when Bubba Watson donned his second green jacket in three years, leaving Augusta watchers wondering if the fading superstars had made their last runs at Masters glory.

When Bubba Watson won his second green jacket in three years at Augusta on Sunday, he did so with neither Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson in the field -- the first time at least one member of the legendary duo has not played on the weekend of a Masters since 1997.

The way things seem to be going for the aging and injury-plagued superstars, it is likely that last week’s Tiger- and Phil-less finale will become more of the norm than an anomaly.

Getting past Tiger

The specter of the two -- Woods especially -- hung over the proceedings of the men’s first major of the season, which commenced with the world No. 1 skipping his first Masters since 1994 because of back surgery and ended with the second-best southpaw in the game joining his long-time rival on the sidelines after missing his first Augusta cut in 17 years.

Alas, for Tiger and Phil fans, life -- even at tradition-bound Augusta National, and without the two most dominant Masters competitors of the past 20 years -- goes on. Indeed, with Woods laid up possibly for the rest of the season, Mickelson battling his own injuries and a shaky game, and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth giving Watson all he could handle on Sunday, it is difficult to dispute the notion that the Tiger/Phil-centric era is entering its stretch drive.

Woods and Mickelson own seven green jackets between them. One or the other had finished among the top five each year since 1999 and in the top 10 at each Masters since 1995. Their mere presence in the Augusta field each April sends a buzz among Masters spectators and Woods’ appearance used to send chills up and down the spines of competitors wizened enough to recall the glory days of the Big Two.

"When Tiger rolls through the gate [at Augusta] -- I was on that range five, six, seven years ago, when you walked on the range and you could literally feel the aura with him," said six-time major champion-turned-TV-analyst Nick Faldo, who played with Woods in the future superstar’s first Masters round as a professional in 1996, as CBS began its broadcast on Saturday. "Every face on that range turned to look to see Tiger walking on. That was the presence that he had."

Note the past tense.

Today’s young studs -- Spieth and Jonas Blixt, joint runners-up to Watson on Sunday, perhaps most notably -- are not your father’s would-be heirs apparent. Indeed, the guys who over the years have had a run at Tiger (and Phil, to some degree) were non-factors by the time Bubba and Jordan took center stage in the finale.

Rory McIlroy, supposedly the "next Tiger Woods" after his eight-shot drubbing of the 2011 U.S. Open field, was out early on Sunday and had likely fled the course by the time Watson tapped in for the win. Defending champion Adam Scott, who failed in his third attempt to unseat Woods from the top ranking, took himself out of contention with a third-round 4-over 76. Tiger nemesis Sergio Garcia entered the week on something of a roll but was gone by the weekend.

Expect to see much more of Spieth, who came up four shots shy of the win and of surpassing Woods as the youngest golfer to win a Masters. Despite a few mild acts of frustration, the kid comported himself in his first turn around Augusta "better than I could have imagined," he told Golf Channel after finishing in a tie for second with Blixt at 5-under.

"I felt like I did a great job today and I can’t wait to get to have another shot at it," said Spieth. "I felt like I played really my ‘A’ game this week on a golf course that demanded it, on the biggest stage, a stage that I’ve always dreamt about playing on.

"Man, there’s just so much that I can take positively from that."

Be afraid, Tiger and Phil, be very afraid.

Spieth_sunday_medium

Jordan Spieth/Photo credit: Rob Carr

No two golfers in the post-Arnold Palmer/Jack Nicklaus era have meant as much to the game or symbolized the Masters more than Woods and Mickelson, who have earned those seven victories (four for Woods, three for Mickelson) in the past 17 years. For many of those 10 years when neither triumphed, they were breathing down the necks of the eventual winners.

This season, the dynamic duo has nary a victory between them but three WDs on their cards -- Tiger from the Honda Classic with his sore back, and Phil from the Farmers Insurance Open and Valero Texas Open with a back injury and strained oblique muscle, respectively. Neither one exactly inspires fear in their opponents these days.

"There's probably not one player that would have said, going into the Masters, ‘I wish I hit it like Tiger Woods,’" Paul Azinger said in a pre-Masters teleconference with reporters.

"There's probably not one player that would have said, going into the Masters, ‘I wish I hit it like Tiger Woods.’" -ESPN's Paul Azinger

Certainly, it is way too early to tap Spieth the next It golfer, but given the way he handled himself last week under the glare of the brightest spotlight, it would be surprising if he were to wilt at the sight of Woods or Mickelson on the first tee at Augusta.

In fact, he has already proven that the Tiger Intimidation Factor has no impact on him, having routed him by nine strokes in the first two rounds at Torrey Pines in January. Woods was ailing with the herniated disc that eventually forced him onto the surgeon’s table and out of the Masters, but a drubbing’s a drubbing, and the drubbee was sure to take note of the kid’s composure and finish this week.

Woods and Mickelson are bound to stoke the same fervor among the patrons if they’re healthy enough to tee it up at Augusta next year, and each may have a run or two at the green jacket left in him. But, with Woods out for the foreseeable future, and Mickelson pondering how to regain his touch, it’s likely we have already witnessed the passing of the torch to a new generation.

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