Jack Nicklaus 'feels bad' for Tiger Woods, whose absence looms large over Augusta National

Harry How

Phil Mickelson says he misses Tiger Woods, whose back surgery forced the world No. 1 to skip his first Masters since 1994.

Tiger Woods will not be making SportsCenter’s highlight reel this week. Sabermetricians will not be tallying the number of putts the world No. 1 needed on the slicker-than-you-know-what putting surfaces at Augusta National.

Brandel Chamblee will not be handing out failing grades for Woods' ignorance of the rules, and Johnny Miller will not be breaking down exactly why Tiger’s Sean Foley-rebuilt swing cost the 14-time major champion that elusive No. 15.

No, Tiger Woods will not be strutting his way around Amen Corner this week for the first time since 1994 but golf’s transcendent superstar is on the minds of those who will have one fewer competitor to overcome for this year’s green jacket. Indeed, the specter of the injury-plagued absentee looms large over his favorite venue as his PGA Tour colleagues on Tuesday rued Woods having to skip this year’s festivities.

"It’s a big loss for the tournament any time a world No. 1 is not going to play. It’s a huge loss," defending champion Adam Scott, one of a trio of players with a chance this week to overtake Woods for the world’s top ranking, told reporters.

Woods’ good buddy Rory McIlroy concurred.

"Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere," said the two-time major winner. "You know where he is on the course just by the crowd and the gallery that follows him ... It’s always better [for fans] to have him in the golf tournament."

Woods has been stuck on 14 major titles since 2008, and even though there’s no chance for him to end a five year-plus losing skid this week, that has not staunched chatter about his race to 19.

"People are eager to see how [Tiger’s] going to chase down Jack Nicklaus in every major championship. That’s a countdown to that," said reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. "Obviously for him on a personal level, it’s never nice having to watch the tournament when you’re banged up and hurt a little bit. So no doubt it will just fire him up even more for the rest of the year."

The Golden Bear himself weighed in on the void Woods’ absence has left at Augusta, as well as his continued expectation that his mark of 18 major wins would eventually fall to his only challenger.

"I feel very bad for Tiger. He's really worked towards my record," Nicklaus said Tuesday on "Mike & Mike" on ESPN Radio. "I still think he'll break my record, as long as he is physically able to do it.

"He's 38 years old and he's probably got another 10 years at least of being able to compete -- that's 40 more majors to win five of them," Nicklaus added. "It shouldn't be too difficult, but then again I’ve always said he’s got to do it."

Though competitor after competitor noted the vacuum created by Woods’ withdrawal due to recent back surgery, they also claimed that, Tiger or no Tiger, the show would go on.

"It’s the nature of sports and guys get injured and it’s an unfortunate timing for that. And you know, like I said, it’s going to be missing the top player in the game," said Scott. "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."

McIlroy, making his sixth start at Augusta, again echoed Scott’s sentiments.

"I feel very bad for Tiger. He's really worked towards my record...I still think he'll break my record, as long as he is physically able to do it." -Jack Nicklaus

"No matter who’s in contention or who’s going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish regardless of who’s there," he said. "I think people will miss him at the start of the week, but by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, there’s going to be a worthy winner and it will produce a lot of excitement.

"Will he be missed then by the fans?" McIlroy wondered. "I’m not sure but it always produces a great finish whether Tiger’s in the mix or not."

Phil Mickelson, who earned his first of three green jackets 10 years ago, had a different take on what a finish without Woods might entail, suggesting that winning a grand slam event without his long-time rival in the field took a bit of the luster off the trophy.

"It’s a weird feeling not having him here isn’t it? He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf at the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon," said Mickelson, who assured the gathered scribes that he was fully recovered from his own strained muscle.

"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," Lefty added, "it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win."

2014 Masters Rookies

Mickelson also expressed his gratitude for all that Woods, golf’s megawatt money-maker, has done for the game as well as his own and every other tour pro’s bank account.

"I remember when I was an amateur and won my first tournament in Tucson, in 1991, the entire purse was a million dollars, first place $180,000, and [my agent] and I would sit down and say, ‘I wonder if in my lifetime, probably not my career, we would ever play for a million dollar first place check.’ It's every week [now]. It’s unbelievable what has happened with the growth of this game and Tiger’s been the instigator," said Mickelson.

"He's been the one that's really ... driven the bus because he's brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest, and we have all benefitted but nobody has benefitted more than I have and we're all very appreciative," he said. "That's why we miss him so much; we all know what he's meant to the game."


Phil Mickelson prepares for the Masters with a friendly wager/Photo: Harry How

Though he waxed nostalgic about the far-flung superstar, Mickelson made it clear what he had his sights set on this week.

"I do know that Arnold [Palmer] and Tiger have four jackets and I have three. I know Jack has six but there’s nothing I can do about that right now," Mickelson, with a wry smile, cracked. "Right now I’m just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are."

So we miss you, Tiger, and hurry back and all that, but while the big cat’s away ...

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