Tiger’s absence reminds us of his Masters magnificence long ago

Tiger Woods' victory in 1997 changed the Masters and the sport of golf.

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Golf is a sport besotted by its past, but no tournament plays on nostalgia quite like the Masters.

From allowing past champions into the field well beyond their competitive use-by date to having honorary starters begin the tournament, it’s obvious that here, the past is alive.

It surrounds you, overcomes you; from the moment you enter this cathedral cut into the Georgia pines — no running, no yelling — the stirring deeds of the past are retold as if they’d just happened.

Literally, in some cases.

I once had breakfast on the balcony of the iconic clubhouse — built by a plantation owner in 1854 — and was joined by the late Gene Sarazen. Why read about his albatross at the 1935 Masters — the one that put the tournament on the map — when you can ask the man himself?

Every time I open the clubhouse door I half-expect Bobby Jones to greet me.

It’s fitting, then, that they celebrate the past so thoroughly, so reverentially at Augusta National because this week it’s time to be nostalgic about Tiger Woods.

Woods, of course, won’t be playing in this rite of spring for the first time since 1994 as he recovers from back surgery; the latest physical ailment to impede his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.

His absence amounts to a line drawn in the pine straw.

Perhaps it should’ve happened earlier given he won the last of his four green jackets way back in 2005, but it’s time to acknowledge that he will never again be what he was but, too, that what he was, was a magnificence the likes of which we will never see again.

Woods changed not just the Masters, but golf, in 1997 when he broke not just scoring records but social barriers.

His second victory here was just as famous. In 2001, he became the first man in modern times — and, I’d be willing to bet, the last — to hold all of the sport’s four major trophies at the same time.

The Tiger Slam they called it . . . of course they did.

His third victory, in 2002, was one I’ll never forget, and not just because it won me a few sheckels.

I had been doing quite well from 2000 onwards backing Woods in bets with the late, great English sportswriter Ian Wooldridge.

In ’02, I told him I would give him the field and take Woods.

Think about the absurdity of that for a moment: the entire field in golf against one man, and I felt I had the better end of the wager!

That will not happen again.

Woods won again three years later but that one perhaps told the story of a god who’d become mortal.

Woods, unforgettably, made the signature chip in on 16 after his ball sat on the edge of the cup for what seemed an eternity. But forgotten is that he went on to bogey both closing holes and won in a playoff, needing a good deal of luck to get by Chris DiMarco.

Since then, Woods has had his chances — he’s finished inside the top-six in seven of the past eight Masters — but he’s let himself down (mainly with what used to be his weapon of choice, the putter) in ways he once wouldn’t have.

And that’s what this is about.

It’s about putting an end to watching him scrape it around and wondering when he’ll be back.

It’s about conversations like a recent one between ESPN analysts Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange.

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

"He has not hit it well in years, Paul, you know that," replied Strange.

Back when he was king, other players would watch Woods on the driving range.

"It was a stripe show," said Woods’ closest friend in golf, Notah Begay.

Woods’ ballstriking used to intimidate the pretenders to his throne. He had shots they simply couldn’t play, and they knew it and he knew it.

But Woods, at 38 and with a body that’s unreliable and a swing that’s erratic, doesn’t hit it like that anymore.

He doesn’t chip like he used to and he certainly doesn’t putt like he once did.

Beyond all of that, he doesn’t seem to have the hunger he once did, either.

A decade ago, Woods would never have showed up for his first event of the season, at Torrey Pines as thoroughly unprepared as he did this year.

"You know, his dad said, when Tiger was an amateur, Tiger Woods will win 14 majors," said Azinger.

"Well, you know, he’s won 14 majors.  I don’t know why Earl didn’t say 19, but he said 14.

"I’m just saying, there’s a lot going on here beyond just the physical."

Azinger and Strange both know what happens to golfers as they near 40.

"Every male in America goes through this," said Strange.

"When you’re 38 years old, your kids are getting older, he’s a single dad, trying to be a good dad.  When they look at you and say, ‘Don’t leave, Daddy,’ let me tell you something, that pulls at your heart. 

"And you’re on the road, you want to be home; you’re home, you want to be on the road.

"It’s tough to keep your focus and keep that drive and keep that self‑centered attitude that you need to have.

"And you know, everybody goes through it. Nicklaus admitted it; all of them. And that’s why it gets tougher as you get close to 40."

It’s true that Tiger may come back and win another green jacket, but it won’t be the same.

The truth is it hasn’t been the same for long time.