He didn’t want to take a divot.
The grounds were too pristine. The fairways felt like history. The whole course seemed to be in high definition. When Rory McIlroy pulled down Magnolia Lane for the first time in 2009, a 19-year-old in his first Masters, he felt like a college kid at his first day on campus.
“You’re just wide-eyed,” McIlroy says.
McIlroy, now 24 and the owner of two major titles, has always had an acute sense for the history of golf. The courses, the legends, the shifts in the sport’s power structure — McIlroy can supply thoughtful answers on all these subjects.
So as he returned down Magnolia Lane this week in the days before the 78th Masters, McIlroy felt another perceptible pang on the grounds of Augusta National. Golf’s most famous alpha dog was back home, missing the tournament because of a back injury. And when one Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods is absent from Augusta for the first time since 1994, the whole sport can feel at a crossroads.
“I think any sport benefits from a dominant figure like that to maybe be the legend,” McIlroy says. “Like LeBron James, for example, at the minute in basketball, or Cristiano Ronaldo in football or (Lionel) Messi.
“It’s been Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal in tennis, people like that, people that win on a regular basis and people you can sort of look up to (and) have (as) heroes.”
Woods’ absence guarantees a wide-open tournament, bereft of a true favorite or leading man as play begins on Thursday. The drama could still be heightened on Sunday, and the television images of Augusta will still look as sharp as ever.
But perhaps more than any other, the sport of golf relies on its iconic stars to push the game forward, to shape the story lines and build interest in the casual fan.
From Palmer, to Nicklaus, to Watson, and so on.
For close to two decades that figure has been Woods, who not only dominated the golf world but elevated himself into a global icon, a brand unto himself. For one week here in Augusta, golf is getting a look at what an aging — and injured — Woods could mean for the enterprise as a whole.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Phil Mickelson says. “It’s awkward.”
“A little sad,” Jason Day says
“A big loss,” defending champ Adam Scott says.
Tiger Woods is 38 now. He’ll be 39 at the end of this year. He’s still four majors shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18. He hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S Open. He hasn’t won the Masters since 2005. To put that in context: It’s been nine years since Tiger’s last Green Jacket; it was only 11 years from Jack Nicklaus’ final green jacket in 1986 to Tiger’s first in 1997.
Woods is not the intimidating presence he once was, stalking down the back nine like a fire-breathing dragon, decked out in red. He underwent a microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve in his back in late March, and while Woods is confident he’ll return healthy this year, the combination of injuries and time leave him at a crossroads as well.
Woods, still ranked No. 1 in the world for now, may break his major drought at some point, but he’ll likely never dominate like the old Tiger.
“He’s going to have to overcome that,” said Arnold Palmer, who will again serve as a ceremonial starter before Thursday’s opening round. “He’s going to have to overcome the fact that he won as much as he did, and he’s going to have to refresh that in his mind and his psychological approach to the game.”
While Woods tries to reinvent himself, golf still searches for its next transcendent figure. In the last 22 majors, 19 different players have emerged with victories. The PGA Tour has seen similar parity.
Phil Mickelson, winner of five majors, turns 44 this year. Other stars are aging, too.
Scott could supplant Tiger as the No. 1 player in the world with a top-three finish this week. But he’s already 33 with just one major title.
“I think most sports like seeing dominance, the extraordinary or the exceptional,” Scott says. “We certainly got used to seeing that in golf, and it’s not easy to do.”
Three years ago, McIlroy looked poised to seize the throne. He blew up the field at the U.S. Open in 2011 and then closed 2012 with a major title at the PGA Championship. But even McIlroy, a confident former prodigy from Northern Ireland, grappled with what it meant to carry a sport forward.
“I never started playing golf to become a transcendent athlete,” McIlroy says. “But I think sport needs those.”
When McIlroy steps to the first tee on Thursday, he’ll do so with Jordan Spieth, a 20-year-old from Dallas, and Patrick Reed, a 23-year-old with three PGA Tour victories. Both Spieth and Reed are playing in their first Masters. Both profile as future stars.
But as McIlroy can tell them, it’s not easy being pegged as the heir apparent to a king or a Tiger. In the era of Tiger, the bar for dominance is high. A generation of golfers spawned by Woods has increased the competition.
For now, no one has seized the moment. As Woods sits at home with a balky back, golf waits for its next star to emerge.
“As a fan of golf, it would just be nice to see,” McIlroy says. “It doesn’t have to be one guy. It could be a handful of guys. But has it been a burden? No. It’s definitely more of an opportunity, because I never pictured myself being at that level. All I wanted to do was be a great golfer.”