April 10, 2014

The Masters goes on at Augusta despite missing icons

The premier event of the golf season begins Thursday, but for the first time in 20 years Augusta National will be without Tiger Woods and the famous Eisenhower Tree.

A wounded Tiger and a famously toppled tall tree are missing from the 78th Masters this week, but one of the greatest shows in all of golf will go on at Augusta National, with a field of 97 players in the field and a take-your-pick list of potential contenders.

Tiger Woods, a four-time champion and the No. 1 player in the world rankings, announced April 1 that he would not be participating this week for the first time in 20 years because of a balky back. This was no April Fool’s joke, and certainly no one on these gorgeous grounds at the time — or the ratings-conscious executives at CBS — thought his withdrawal after recent back surgery to ease the pain of a pinched nerve was any laughing matter.

“We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world,” Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said. “Nevertheless, this is the Masters, what we hope is the best golf tournament in the world.”

It should remain that way despite another absence — the Eisenhower Tree on the 17th fairway — the victim of a February ice storm that claimed the legendary loblolly pine. The former president, frustrated by so many shots that ricocheted off its trunk or branches, 60 years ago had asked former tournament chairman Clifford Roberts to have it removed. Roberts, a dictator on this particular property, very emphatically vetoed that presidential request, and the tree survived.

Though it stood only 210 yards from the tee and was usually easily cleared by the long hitters of modern golf, the tree still claimed an occasional off-target victim. Now, the spot on the course where it stood is marked by a single pine cone, and the hottest item around here is a new commemorative silver coin ordered up by the lords of the Masters. Only 350 were minted, at $125 each, and they immediately sold out.

Check eBay, and then your 401K.

“The Eisenhower Tree was symbolic,” 2008 champion Trevor Immelman said. “”When you got to the 17th tee, and you’ve never been there before, the story would get told. That’s important. It’s one of the reasons why everybody has such a love affair with Augusta National.”

Arnold Palmer said his old friend Dwight D. Eisenhower “loved Augusta. I think deep down he probably loved that tree because it irritated him so much.”

There are countless possibilities to acquire another one of the club’s proudest traditions — the coveted green jacket that goes to the winner on Sunday evening, currently worn by defending champion Adam Scott of Australia, another favorite.

The spiffy sport coat could even go to one of the record 24 first-time participants, not to mention a former three-time champion, Phil Mickelson, who has more Masters titles than anyone in this year’s field. The 2014 event marks the 10-year anniversary of Mickelson’s popular breakthrough triumph here in 2004, finally ending his long streak of frazzling failure in major championships.

Lefty confident

“That win 10 years ago just propelled me,” Mickelson said this week. “I knew that once I won one, I really felt confident I could win a few, but I needed to get that first one, and that was a big one. … It’s a magical place to begin with. But for me personally, the feeling that comes over me as I drive down Magnolia Lane is that I don’t have to play perfect to play well here.

“I can recover from mistakes here. You always have a shot. You always have a swing if you hit a bad shot. You have a chance to salvage your par. You have a chance to let your short game save it for you. And if I do hit a number of good shots, I’m able to make birdies. The course has always been a course I felt comfortable on and I’ve played some of my best golf here.”

So has Woods, who won his first Masters in 1997 with a record score (18-under-par 270) and margin of victory (12 shots over runner-up Tom Kite) and his fourth and last title in 2005. Despite that victory drought here, he contended virtually ever year since, with seven top-six finishes — twice a runner-up — in the past eight Masters. Clearly, his absence has been a huge pre-tournament topic of conversation, particularly among the players in the field.

“Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere,” said Irishman Rory McIlroy, clearly among the top favorites. “You know where he is on the course just by the crowd and the gallery that follows him. … 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. … It always produces a great finish, whether Tiger is in the mix, or not.”

Day excited

Another highly regarded contender, 26-year-old Australian Jason Day, has been much in the mix here on Sunday. In 2011, he tied for second with a final-round 68, and last year he was third, missing the playoff between Scott and Angel Cabrera by two shots with a 70 on Sunday.

Day hasn’t played for six weeks because of a sore left thumb, but said he’s having no problems with it in recent weeks, and “the hand’s coming up nicely.”

“I’ve been watching this tournament since I was a little kid,” he said. “I love everything about this place, the history and the tradition. It’s just golfing heaven in such a small place in the middle of America, and every year it’s just fun. Every time I get back here, it gets the juices flowing again, all the good memories.”

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