Masters: No tree, no Woods for the first time


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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- First the Eisenhower Tree. Now Tiger Woods.

Two staples at the Masters, iconic fixtures if you will, felled in the same year. Just like that.

The Eisenhower Tree, which gobbled tee shots to the left of the 17th fairway at the Augusta National Golf Club, was done in by a winter ice storm. Woods, who used to gobble green jackets, was done in by debilitating back pain that finally required surgery.

The patrons -- that's what they call the gallery members at the Masters -- will get over the tree. Some might make a pilgrimage to the spot to pay homage to the century-old pine that so infuriated President Dwight D. Eisenhower he campaigned to have it removed. But, when the first major of the season begins Thursday, Ike's tree will be nothing more than an afterthought.

Not true with Woods.

He will miss the Masters for the first time in 20 years, and not having him at Augusta National is like not having sand at the beach. Sure, he hasn't won a green jacket since 2005 -- a staggering drought considering he won four in a nine-year span -- but his walk to the first tee for the opening round always had the same feel of Mike Tyson entering the boxing ring.

In the eight years since his previous Masters victory, Woods has finished second twice, third once, fourth three times (including last year) and sixth once. He is more than just the focus of attention at the Masters; he is almost always a fixture on the leader board.

Still, by the time he returns from surgery -- an estimated three to four months, according to medical specialists -- Woods is looking at 2015 as probably the earliest possible opportunity to win another major championship. He will be 39 then.

This latest surgery creates even more doubt about Woods' ability to reach his ultimate goal: Catching and passing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

Woods is stuck on 14, has been since his Monday playoff victory against Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open. However, that is the same amount of major titles Nicklaus had when he was 38, though it must be noted the Golden Bear won the 1978 British Open seven months after his 38th birthday.

While the mathematical odds are still on his side, Woods faces a bigger obstacle than Nicklaus ever had to endure -- seven surgeries in the past three years.

"The real irony here is that he's arguably the most fit golfer who has ever played the game, and now he's kind of at the mercy of an unfit body," said former PGA champion and Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, an analyst for ESPN. "Maybe not an unfit body, but a body that's breaking down."

"I think this gives him a chance to be more successful the next 10 years by having the surgery than if he wouldn't have had it," said former two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North, who was bothered by back pain in his career. "I think we will see a different Tiger Woods when he comes back this fall. He has not been right for almost a year. Hopefully, we'll get the guy back that we all think that he can be."

Curtis Strange, the last player to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles who was once ranked No. 1 in the world, said Woods' recent health issues will make it difficult for him to catch Nicklaus. He also pointed out that only two players have ever won five majors after turning 38 -- Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, who won nine in an eight-year period.

"That's the one thing that can bring any athlete down," Strange said. "It's all speculation, but the fact of the matter is, he is breaking down."

Then Strange added, "He hasn't hit the ball well, quite frankly, for six years."

With Woods out of the way, who will contend at the Masters?

Adam Scott, the defending champion who beat Angel Cabrera in a pulsating two-hole playoff, is one of the pre-tournament favorites, even though he frittered away a last-round lead at Bay Hill a couple of weeks ago. So is world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who, like Scott, let what appeared to be a sure victory at the Honda Classic slip away on the back nine last month.

Then there is Jason Day, who already has two near-misses at Augusta National but hasn't played since his victory in the WGC-Match Play championship Feb. 23 because of a bad thumb; three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson, who has finished in the top five nine times since 2001; and Dustin Johnson, who has one victory this season and leads the tour in scoring average (69.043) and greens in regulation.

Among the players making their first appearance at Augusta National, multiple winners Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed are legitimate contenders, as are Jordan Spieth and Harris English.

Scott, 33, returns to defend his title, one year after prematurely thinking he won the Masters with a dramatic 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, only to watch Cabrera dampen his unbridled celebration by stuffing his approach to 2½ feet on the final hole to force a playoff.

Scott won the playoff on the second extra hole with a 12-foot birdie at No. 10, becoming the first player from Australia to win the green jacket. His reaction to his first major title -- and ending 77 years of frustration for his country -- is the lasting memory of the 2013 Masters.

"You know, it's probably slightly out of character, but maybe that was all the years of frustration and everything coming out of not having won a major at that point," Scott said during a recent conference call. "I think at those moments, you see how much it means to anyone competing out there, and that was a big one for me, obviously.

"They are the moments that you just dream about, holing a putt, and for it to actually happen, you kind of get wrapped up in it. It's maybe not the normal character [for me], but for a moment like that, I think anyone would be pretty excited."

Curiously, Day thought he might be the first from Australia to win the Masters, especially after making three consecutive birdies and heading to the 16th tee on Sunday holding a two-shot lead. But, similar to what he did at the end of the third round when he bogeyed the final two holes, Day bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 to let Scott and Cabrera hop over his fallen hopes.

"I had always wanted to be the first Australian to win the Masters," Day said during a recent conversation. "That was a huge goal for me. But getting the second green jacket for Australia is not too bad at all."

One thing is certain: There will be no green jacket for Tiger Woods.

Teeing off

n What: The 78th Masters.

n When: Thursday.

n Where: Augusta National, Augusta, Ga.

n TV: ESPN.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.


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