They were actually talking about the Eisenhower Tree, which ranks No. 2 on this year’s Masters Miss List. Topping the charts is Woods, who at least wasn’t chopped up and hauled away after toppling over in an ice storm.
His creaky back is recovering from surgery, of course, leaving everyone to wonder what a Masters will be like without its most dominant performer.
It’s the Tiger Effect, for better and worse. Nobody is saying Woods is bigger than the Masters, but he is the biggest thing about it. He inspired young players who have turned the PGA Tour into a weekly shootout.
You could make a case for any of 40 players to win and not be laughed off the Augusta grounds. You could also make a case that unless the leader hires Paulina Gretzky to caddy for him on Sunday, a lot of people won’t care.
“Having Tiger in a tournament creates more buzz,” Rory McIlroy said.
The Masters has its own unique buzz, so it probably won’t suffer like the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But the ticket market indicates Augusta isn’t immune to Tiger.
Stubhub prices dropped nearly 20 percent the day after Woods announced he’d miss the tournament. TiqIQ, another secondary ticket seller, saw a 66 percent drop in entry price for the first round compared to last year.
TV ratings usually dip 30 to 40 percent when Woods isn’t around. All those cameras on Woods usually amount to about $3 million in free exposure for Nike.
Not that the average sports fan frets over CBS’s ratings or Nike’s stock price. They just find golf more compelling when the name “Woods” is on the leaderboard. And that’s where it usually is at Augusta.
He has four wins and 11 top-five finishes. It’s the only major Woods had never missed. Neither rain nor sleet nor surgeries nor buzzing airplanes have kept him from his appointed rounds.
The Masters chronicles the now 38-year-old’s career, from a 21-year-old who blew away the field, to the golf god who won three in five years, to the fallen icon who showed up in 2010 with his personal life in tabloid hell.
After speaking of returning to his Buddhist roots, some joker hired a plane to pull a banner that read, “Tiger: Did You Mean Bootyism?”
That never happened to Ben Hogan. But love him or loathe him, Woods has always been the show. Hogan has a bridge, Jack Nicklaus has a plaque, Dwight Eisenhower had that pine tree he kept hitting on the 17th hole.
Woods’ legacy spans the entire course since he prompted the club to introduce “the second cut,” a.k.a., the rough designed to Tiger-proof it from his booming drives.
Now he has trouble taking the club back without grimacing. But as Woods lies on his couch at his Florida compound this weekend, he can at least turn on his large-screen and take pride in what he has begat.
Pre-Tiger, golfers weren’t supposed to blossom until they were at least 25. He ransacked that conception, and a generation of impressionable kids took note.
Patrick Reed was 6 years old when Woods won his first Masters. Now Reed’s a rookie with three PGA wins and is greedily eyeing a green jacket.
“We grew up watching Tiger, what he has done,” Reed said. “That has pushed us to want to reach our goals. We basically want to play the game how he has done in the dominant fashion that he has done.”
There are 24 rookies this year, the most ever unless you count the inaugural year of 1935. Only three have ever won the Masters (two in the first two years), but nobody would be shocked if Reed or Jordan Spieth or Harris English or even Dutchman Joost Luiten won.
McIlory, Scott, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day are betting favorites, but you could throw a dart at the pairing sheet and it might hit the winner. The past six Tour events have been won by golfers who’d never won before this season.
“I think people will miss him at the start of the week,” McIlroy said of Woods. “But by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, it will produce excitement.”
The Masters always does. It might even involve the 17th hole, where that 65-foot pine tree used to reside in the fairway. The speculation is Augusta National will have a new tree there by next year’s tournament.
Some things aren’t so easily replaced.
“Of course, [Tiger’s] going to be missed,” Stenson said.
For a lot of reasons, Woods has made the Masters a tradition like no other the past 20 years. Maybe someone should hire a plane to fly over his house this weekend. The banner should read: