At this point in his career, with another major injury derailing hopes of becoming the winningest golfer in major championship history, it feels like Tiger Woods needs Augusta more than Augusta needs him.
That wasn't true about any Masters tournament since 1997, when Woods burst onto the major championship scene, but this season—which has seen Woods struggle through the early part of the PGA Tour schedule with a devastatingly ailing back—the Masters doesn't need Woods this year. Not like this.
The Masters doesn't need two rounds of Tiger slogging up and down the bounding fairways of Augusta National, grabbing his back after every wayward shot while using his short irons more as a cane than a means to get out of the second cut.
The Masters doesn't need Tiger showing up just to withdraw after a few holes because the pain in his back was too severe to continue.
The Masters doesn't need another ceremonial starter. Not when the best golfer of his generation is still—even at 38 years old—one of the best in the game when healthy.
When healthy, Augusta needs Tiger, and the game of golf needs him too.
When healthy...whenever that will be.
The statement released by Woods' representatives, and posted on TigerWoods.com, is no April Fools' joke. Woods had a procedure called a microdiscectomy on a pinched nerve in his back, performed by Dr. Charles Rich in Park City, Utah, on Monday. Per Woods:
After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done.
I'd like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters. It's a week that's very special to me. It also looks like I'll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.
This is the first time in his professional career that Woods will miss the Masters. In fact, Woods has teed off at Augusta every year since 1995—when he was the lone amateur at the event—two years before turning pro.
Even during the years in which Woods fought through injuries he managed to play at the Masters.
In 2011, Woods played in just nine PGA events but still teed off at the Masters, finishing in a tie for fourth. It was a month before he entered another event that year—he withdrew from The Players Championship before it began—and nearly four months before he was healthy enough to complete an actual event. Still, he made sure to play the Masters.
In 2010, Woods competed in just 12 PGA Tour events, starting his season with the Masters. He finished tied for fourth, one of 13 top-10 finishes at the event in his career. He failed to compete in another final round for nearly two months, missing one cut before withdrawing from The Players Championship that season as well.
Back in 2008, Woods started just six events, but won four of them. He finished second in the Masters that season, then took more than two months off before returning for the U.S. Open in June, which ended up being the last event of his season.
Woods never let injuries force him to miss the Masters, even if playing in it came to the detriment of the rest of his season.
Woods is still chasing Jack Nicklaus for the record of most major championships—his website has a page entitled Tiger vs. Jack—but it's been evident since that first green jacket in 1997 that winning the Masters means the most of all the majors.
Jack has six green jackets. Tiger has four. Surely Woods wants the overall majors record, but it stands to reason he wants to win more times at Augusta than Jack as well.
Woods hasn't won any major since 2008, but he hasn't won the Masters since 2005 despite seven top-six finishes in the last eight years. It's obvious how much August means to Woods. This injury must be devastating.
Tiger's statement was quick to quell any sorrow one might feel from this Masters letdown. He will be back, at some point, and he hasn't lost focus on his career goals.
It's tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future. There are a couple [of] records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.
The question, of course, has never been whether Tiger hopes to break the records, but with the mounting injuries (and past indiscretions) that have kept him off the course for much of last half decade, the question is if he will ever be on the course—and at the top of his game—enough to break them.
At 38 years old, Woods is past the prime of his career, but he has just as good a chance as anyone to win one of golf's four majors. When healthy.
Woods has finished atop the FedEx Cup standings in five of the last seven seasons, including both of the last two years. While he failed to win a major in 2012 or 2013, Woods recorded eight wins and 17 top-10 finishes in the last two seasons. If there was ever a question of whether or not he was back, he answered it last year, winning five times in 16 starts.
The question isn't about whether or not Tiger is back. It's just about his back.
Woods thinks that rehab and rest could get him healthy in time for the summer, which means there may still be at least one or two chances at winning another major this season. At any rate, he has made it clear he is in no frame of mind to hang up his bag for good. And he shouldn't. He's just 38, which, in today's golf world, seems like a player's major-championship prime.
In each of the last five seasons at least one major has been won by a golfer who was older at the time than Woods is right now. If Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, and Angel Cabrera were able to win majors after the age of 38, who's going to suggest Tiger Woods cannot?
It's unlikely Woods will catch Nicklaus at this time, but it seems that debate may be best served for another day. No matter how many majors he still wins in his career, we know that, as of today, Woods won't win the Masters this year. Barring some horribly ill-conceived April Fools' joke, that is an absolute certainty.
So it will be interesting to see how the Masters is billed on television without its most important figure over the last 20 years. It may be too long ago for most people to remember, but the Masters used to do just fine without Woods in the tournament. But it's impossible to deny the Tiger bump when he's in the hunt.
The last time Woods finished out of contention was 2012, when he placed in a tie for 40th. That year had the lowest ratings in nearly a decade when, coincidentally, Woods also had a down year. (It's worth noting that in both years, the Masters took place over Easter weekend. I'm not even sure a competitive Tiger at the Masters could get better ratings than Jesus.)
The Masters will suffer without Woods in attendance. That's obvious, with how much he has meant to that tournament over the years. The question, however, is if the television audience will tune out because Woods isn't teeing off.
Surely some casual fans may find something else to watch, but the Masters will survive. Frankly, it has to, and if Woods continues to suffer from injuries that force him out for extended periods of time, the game of golf might have to as well.
It's going to be strange to watch the Masters without Woods. It's also something we should start to come to terms with. Whether Woods can come to terms with it, however, will be something entirely different.