The Masters, with its glorious azaleas in full blossom (cue the treacly piano tinkling), storied (if not always admirable) past, and high-caliber roster of renowned golfers led for the past 16 years by Tiger Woods and his 12-shot 1997 victory, is the one golf tournament of the year that even casual fans tend to consider appointment viewing.
The 2014 edition at Augusta National, however, with Woods recovering from back surgery and missing the men’s first major of the season for the first time since his high school days, will be quite different come the first full week of April.
The patrons, who will still pour onto the fabled grounds, munch on pimento cheese sandwiches, clap politely, and raise no Phoenix Open-like ruckus no matter the heroics from Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, and other superstars, know it. Exhibit A: reseller ticket prices took about a 22 percent dive immediately following confirmation from Woods that he would not make it to Augusta.
"We usually don’t see [ticket prices for Thursday’s opening round] drop that dramatically and it’s definitely all due to Tiger’s announcement," Cameron Papp, a spokesperson for secondary market Stubhub told SBNation earlier this week.
Broadcasters, who valiantly argue that "it’s still the Masters" despite the absence of the most popular and polarizing -- but certainly the most watched -- figure in this game or perhaps any other, know it. Sure, there’s the expected ratings dip that ESPN analyst Andy North alluded to during a Thursday conference call with reporters.
"[Tiger’s] the one player that does move the needle," North said, "so we will miss him."
CBS Sports chair Sean McManus was a tad more defensive about the numbers issue during his network’s teleconference on Thursday.
"When Tiger is in the Masters, there’s going to be a spike in the ratings," McManus conceded. "Will we miss the spike of not having Tiger there in the ratings? I’m sure we probably will but I’m not overly concerned that we’re ... going to have a tournament that’s not going to be the highest rated of all the golf tournaments in America."
Blah blah blah ratings. The prospect of a Masters with no Tiger elicited a far more visceral response from 1993 PGA champion Paul Azinger.
"It’s a huge disappointment," the ESPN commentator said.
"There's probably not another player in the history of sports [who] has had as big an impact on his sport as Tiger, as far as viewership and ratings and money -- maybe Muhammad Ali in boxing," said Azinger. "I just can't think of anybody that, when he's not here, the void is any greater in any sport."
Even the players, who, with the 14-time major champion watching from afar for the first time since 1994, have no real or imagined Tiger mystique awaiting them down the stretch on Sunday, know it.
The vacuum left by Woods’ withdrawal will "definitely affect the sport," Rory McIlroy, the runaway winner of two majors and a favorite heading into next Thursday, told reporters on Wednesday ahead of the final Augusta tuneup in Houston. "Golf is always better when Tiger Woods is in the conversation ... It creates a bigger buzz when he's around."
Yes, the green jackets will put on the same show they do, year in and year out, and which they’ve been doing since long before Tiger’s parents met each other and will do long after the lone challenger to Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors mark sinks his final putt in competition.
But there is already a pervasive sense of -- mourning is obviously too strong an emotion, but certainly of loss, less than a week before the Tiger-less Masters kicks off a mile up Washington Road from where John Daly will hawk his Loudmouth merchandise.
Given the obvious pain he’s been in since August and the havoc it has wreaked on his game, it was not really surprising to learn that Woods would skip this year’s Masters after undergoing a procedure to clean up the detritus from his herniated disc. There was the stunning 79 and missed 54-hole cut at Torrey Pines, where he was going for his record ninth win; the literally painful withdrawal from the Honda Classic, a day after firing a 65; and the 76-78 sandwiched around a 73 and the old Tiger-like 66 that Woods grimaced through at Doral.
The head-scratching mediocrity and drop-to-his-knees agony was on full display on Tiger’s scorecard and his face since that mattress attacked him after he had won five times in 2013.
And yet, it was still somehow shocking to know he would be a no-show for the men’s first major of the season, considering what’s at stake for the soon-to-be former world No. 1, whose nearly lifetime goal has been to take down more grand slam events than anyone in history.
"I feel very badly for Tiger," CBS’ voice of the Masters Jim Nantz said solemnly on Thursday. "We all know he’s prepared his whole life for these four events a year, and this one is his favorite event of all, and on the eve of the tournament he’s not able to compete -- it’s still kind of impossible to get your mind around that."
Nantz noted that reactions to Woods’ most recent announcement bore no resemblance to those that greeted his injuries following his last major victory. Back then, with his game strong enough to weather a broken leg and crapped out ACL and still chalk up his 14th major title, conventional wisdom had it that Padraig Harrington was the Roger Maris of his day.
"It’s a different vibe to me with Tiger not competing in a major, far different than it was in 2008 when he missed the Open Championship and the PGA [Championship] and Padraig won both of those," Nantz opined. "There was a feeling for those of us around the game that, ‘Wow, Tiger had won the U.S. Open in June of ’08 on one leg, if only he would have been here, these results might have been different.’"
The state of Woods’ game heading into next week’s tilt was the difference-maker.
"If this surgery had not happened, I think there was a lot of doubt that Tiger’s game was in the kind of condition that we’re accustomed to for ... anybody to assume ... that this was Tiger’s tournament to win," said Nantz, who cited Woods’ early-season struggles at Torrey Pines, among other places.
"I’m sure it's all back-related but it’s a completely different feeling than it was in ’08, when some people wanted to put an asterisk on those major championships he missed," Nantz added. "I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year, and I’m not taking anything away from Tiger -- he just physically wasn’t there going into the tournament. You could see it coming for the weeks leading up to the surgery."
So here we are, six years after his gutsy U.S. Open triumph and Woods, whose injury-racked body seems to have aged far beyond its 38 years, may well have been an afterthought when the final scores were tallied a week from Sunday. It is nevertheless sobering to know that we will not have the opportunity to find that out.
Augusta, where he has won four times, has always been Tiger’s venue of choice and he had hoped this time around -- before his physical structure once again betrayed him and his game went sideways -- to end his major-less skid at five-plus years.
The doctors may put a positive, if tempered, spin on the type of operation Woods underwent on Monday, and true golf fans certainly hope they are right that the winner of 79 PGA Tour contests will return to the course as fit -- if not healthier -- than ever.
"I think he is going to come back, and he is going to be stronger than he was, certainly in the past six or eight weeks," Dr. Michael Leighton of the Palm Beach Orthopedic Institute, a sports surgeon who has treated several professional athletes not named Tiger Woods said in an e-mail statement on Thursday. "The expectation is that he should be able to come back to 100 percent, but at age 38, he may not be the same guy we saw 10 years ago."
We’ll just have to believe that the experts know their stuff and wait for that breathless moment when Eldrick next bends down to stick a nail in the turf and takes that first post-procedure competitive whack.
For now, though, the rest of the Augusta field have only each other and their own demons to overcome, because Tiger Woods is not strolling down Magnolia Lane any time soon.
And though CBS’ McManus was, of course, right that "the Masters will survive without Tiger Woods," we are all the poorer for his absence.