The most legitimate comparison to Michael Jordan is not LeBron James, nor is it Kobe Bryant—it’s Tiger Woods. Tiger is the only athlete that has been to his sport what Jordan was to basketball and, much like those NBA Playoffs in 1994 without Jordan, the 2014 Masters has been all about the man who wasn’t competing.
For the first time in 20 years, we are witnessing a Masters without Tiger Woods—and it feels weird. Numbers Never Lie gives us a frame of reference to remind us what life was like the last time Tiger wasn’t in Augusta:
Woods has become the face of golf and synonymous with the Masters ever since the enchanting outburst in 1997 that gave the sports world a sign of the sheer, unbridled dominance it was about to witness.
He has 11 top-five finishes and four green jackets in his Masters career, but we won’t get to enjoy his Sunday red this year. We won’t bear witness to some of the game’s most cherished memories, like this:
Nevertheless, Woods has dominated the Masters and all the stories coming out of Augusta. Maybe not explicitly, but he’s there.
The biggest storyline has been the emergence of Jordan Spieth, and Tiger’s impact is all over that narrative for two reasons.
Firstly, Spieth is trying to be the youngest person to ever put on that green jacket—a record that currently belongs to Tiger.
Jordan Spieth (20) can surpass Tiger Woods as the youngest player EVER to win a Masters. Woods was 21 in '97 victory. pic.twitter.com/VSDD181f3B— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 13, 2014
Spieth is indirectly competing with Tiger, despite the fact that Woods is watching the tournament from his couch.
But the overarching theme from this weekend is the golf world desperately hoping that Spieth can accomplish that feat. Not to dethrone Tiger, but to succeed him.
Bill Pennington of The New York Times perfectly summed up the thought crossing everyone’s mind as they watched the 20-year-old ascend to the top of the leaderboard with a poise and maturity that far exceeded his age:
But maybe we have had it all wrong about who will supplant Woods as the world’s best golfer. Maybe it will not be a golfer born in the 1970s or 1980s. Maybe we should be thinking younger. It could be someone who listens to the talk of Woods’ one-time dominance and rolls his eyes the way he does when his grandfather talks about Elvis.
Maybe the golfer who displaces Woods one day will be so young he will call him Mr. Woods, because that’s how he refers to all his golfing elders on the PGA Tour—which means almost everyone.
Maybe it will be someone like Jordan Spieth, born in the summer of 1993 and now tied for the third-round lead of the Masters.
Woods’ spotty injury history and lack of recent major success are slowly dropping the curtain on what has been a phenomenal career. That’s not to say that he’s done, but it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll win another major. Even if he does, it’s improbable that he’ll be able to dominate the sport like he used to.
Consequently, every fan and analyst of the game is frantically hoping to find the heir to his throne.
There’s no denying that the sport has suffered with Tiger struggling to regain his dominance, but his mere presence attracts attention at the very least.
The ratings for this year’s Masters show just how far the game might fall once he leaves. Chris Chase of USA TODAY reported that ESPN’s first-round telecast was down 800,000 viewers from last year to a record low of 2 million.
Woods, like Jordan, was responsible for capturing the imagination of a whole new generation of kids. He made golf cool. Who’s going to keep it cool when Tiger is gone? That’s the question that hangs like a dark cloud over this year’s Masters—which have been thoroughly entertaining, by the way.
Even when he’s not at Augusta, the Masters are always going to be about Tiger—at least until someone can steal the spotlight away.