Tiger Woods will miss his first Masters Tournament since 1997, because of a pinched nerve in his back.
Woods has historically been dominant at Augusta. At the age of 21, Woods won the Masters by a record breaking 12 strokes. Since then he has won the major three times, the latest in 2005. But, perhaps more impressively, he has finished in the top 10 seven of the past eight years, including two runner-ups.
Woods, age 38, has won a combined 14 majors in his career, second only behind Jack Nicklaus’ 18. He has not won a major since 2007, when he beat Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff round to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The question on everyone’s mind: Does Tiger, after multiple surgeries, have what it takes to pass Nicklaus’ record?
“It’s tough right now,” Woods said, “but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future.”
Defending the green jacket this year is Adam Scott. He and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy are the only players in the field to have odds in the single digits. Scott, the world’s second ranked golfer, has 9–1 odds of winning.
McIlroy, who had a rough 2013 campaign, already has three top-10 finishes this year and is many people’s choice to win. McIlroy was the youngest golfer in history to lead the Masters after the first day in 2011. He held the lead at the start of the final day—and then shot 80. Another record, in fact, for the worst round shot by a leader on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson is another favorite to win. He has won the tournament three times, and finished in the top-five three other times. Currently he is ranked fifth in the world, but with a veteran like Mickelson who knows the course as well as any other golfer in the field, one has to believe that he’ll find himself in contention on Sunday.
There are a few other Masters perennials: Fred Couples, Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk and Miguel Jimenez. Cabrera has finished in the top-10 six times, including a win in 2009—the year Woods finished sixth.
The most interesting thing about this year’s Masters, though, is the obvious question: Who will fill Woods’ shoes when, inevitably, his missing a Masters is the norm? Indeed, his absence this year is a bigger story than any other golfer’s presence. It may seem self-evident nowadays that golf is the popular, money-making, international sport that it is, but the truth is that the PGA’s growth has been linked at the hip with the celebrity (and success) of Mr. Woods. The collective purse of the PGA has risen by $284.6 million since 1994.
There are a few young players who seem to have the potential to climb into the upper echelon of golf and who will benefit from the absence of Woods. The young Australian Jason Day has been in contention the past few years. There’s McIlroy, who, after his stellar Masters opening in 2011 was drawing comparisons to Woods, and who has a golden opportunity to win his second major at Augusta.
The list could go on and on. But what many viewers will be looking for, though, is not the leap from good to great. People (myself included) will undoubtedly be searching for the leap into the stratosphere—the same leap that a 21-year-old Woods took back in 1997.