By Steve Silverman
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For many sports fans, it’s a tradition like no other.
Yes, we are talking about The Masters from Augusta, and how it puts the focus on golf like no other event — until we get to the U.S. Open. For those who like to romanticize that The Masters is the best event of the golf year, that’s so much bunk.
The Masters is a great tournament played at a visually stunning course, but it doesn’t compare in importance to the U.S. Open. However, The Masters is the first huge event of the year, and golfers love the romanticism of Augusta National and the hope that they will one day get a chance to venture onto those hallowed grounds.
But this year, The Masters is subdued. For the first time in 20 years, Tiger Woods will not be playing in it and the sport is going to suffer.
It has been six years since Woods won his last major. He’s been stuck on 14 for so long that many non-golf fans believe he’s no longer special and has lost his appeal.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. He has been the most compelling figure in the game since Arnold Palmer made golf a must-see sport on television and Jack Nicklaus ultimately took the crown as golf’s best ever.
When Woods turned pro in 1996 — and even before that — he seemed like almost a mythic figure who had the ability to take golf to a level it had never seen.
In this case, the hype was right on the money. Sports fans — even those who didn’t appreciate golf — were drawn in by this multiethnic star.
Critics paint golf as an expensive sport played by a lot of rich white men, and there’s no getting around that. But with Woods on the scene, a lot of people who never even thought about golf suddenly had a hero and a compelling figure to follow.
There’s no telling how many African-Americans and Asian-Americans Woods brought to the sport, and it was clear that once the newcomers got a taste of the game, their obsession with the sport and Woods grew.
Race may have been the factor that drew people to Woods, but it was the quality of his game and his personality that kept them watching. Woods played with a football-like intensity. He didn’t necessarily care what others expected from him, but he sure expected a lot from himself.
A poor shot has always been quite likely to be met with a trail of invective that would make Chelsea Handler blush. Well, perhaps not, but you get the idea.
Woods liked to celebrate, but not because he made a mere birdie. It had to be a 30-foot putt or longer, an eagle or a tournament victory that would bring out his traditional fist pump.
As Woods became ensconced, it was his intensity that became the draw. He attacked a golf course like a linebacker attacked a running back, and others noticed. Today’s young players are far more aggressive than many of the gentlemen from previous eras.
That’s good. Good manners and etiquette had been vital parts of the game for decades and the decorum factor is still high. But Woods’ exuberance and desire put a far more human face on the game. People get angry when they screw up and they celebrate when they do well. It’s OK to show those feelings on the golf course.
In recent years, Woods’ personal issues gave many observers and critics the chance to skewer his off-the-course behavior. Woods clearly made a lot of mistakes, but the only criticism that really mattered came from his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren. She couldn’t live with him anymore and sent him packing.
Embarrassing for Woods? Yes, but he is a golfing corporate entity. He has dealt with a slew of injuries, and his current back problems were so painful that he had to give up this year’s Masters and submit to surgery.
Microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve is not a complicated procedure, and patients are almost always out of the hospital the same day as the surgery. If all goes well for Woods, he will be back practicing in a month, and he could be ready to play in the U.S. Open.
Whether you love Woods or not, golf is about 100 times more interesting when he is competing. The Masters will be a solid that features Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson (maybe — he has injury issues of his own), Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and a rising star in Jordan Spieth.
But it is not a Major without Woods. It is merely a major, and it doesn’t quite have the juice that it did.
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