Masters will shine despite missing Tiger and a tree

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the second tee during the final round of The Barclays on Aug. 25, 2013. (Credit: Getty Images)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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The Masters this year will be missing a towering presence, an iconic golf figure, a formidable, impenetrable foe for many exasperated golfers.

Tiger Woods won't be there, either.

It was the Eisenhower Tree, that fierce guardian of the 17th fairway, that toppled first. It was felled by an ice storm weeks before Woods pulled out because of back surgery. The point is, as much as Augusta National's members and admirers were chagrined by the loss of the 65-foot loblolly pine, they were not devastated by it. Life goes on. The Masters will be just fine, without the tree and without the No. 1 player and celebrity in golf.

Like everything else involved with the game, the Masters has benefited from a sharp spike in interest in the Woods era. But this tournament is the one that is most Tiger-proofed (to borrow a phrase that was used to describe changes made in the course after Woods dominated the field there).

Tickets are among the hottest commodities in sports, dispersed by lottery and all sold in advance. The television contract is like gold to CBS, so the tournament is not beholden to year-to-year fluctuations in ratings. More than anything, the Masters just has its own distinct look and feel.

"The Masters is the Masters," said Hank Haney, Woods' former swing coach, who has seen close-up the impact his former pupil has on every phase of golf-including Haney's own fame. He nonetheless believes the cachet of Magnolia Lane is a trump card.

People just like seeing Amen Corner, the azaleas, the green jackets. While there has been legitimate debate through the years about Augusta National's openness to progress -- it accepted African American and women members only after strident criticism -- there is no denying that the Masters' roots reach deep into American culture. For many people it is a symbol as well as a spectacle.

"The Midwest is coming out of one of the worst winters in the world and they are just looking for something pretty and warm on television," said Andy North, the Wisconsin resident and two-time U.S. Open champion who will be doing commentary on ESPN's Masters coverage Thursday and Friday. "When we finally get to Masters week, it's like, 'OK, spring is officially here. We can start living again.'"

Spring doesn't get canceled because there is no Woods and no Eisenhower Tree. Of the latter, defending champion Adam Scott said, "Anything that lives will eventually die I guess, and this one maybe early. But the course has evolved over the years with natural changes and man-made changes."

Not as many man-made changes as former President Dwight Eisenhower would have liked. A passionate golfer and Augusta member, he was so infuriated by the way the pine kept blocking his drives that it became named for him. He vowed to level it with "a half stick of dynamite," according to Catherine Lewis in her book, "Don't Ask What I Shot."

She wrote that fellow members were so happy to see him after his convalescence from heart surgery that they promised to do anything for him. He asked that the tree be chopped down. Chairman Clifford Roberts effectively said, "Anything but that."

Jack Nicklaus posted on his Facebook page, "I don't care to comment on the names I called myself and that tree."

Woods sustained one of his serious injuries there in 2011 when, hitting from an awkward stance near Ike's Tree, when he slipped on the pine straw.

Masters chairman Billy Payne said the club will do something to compensate for the lost landmark that had stood 100 years or more. "Rest assured, we will do it appropriately," he said in a life-goes-on themed statement.

So the big tournament has lost its big tree and, for this year, its biggest star. Big deal. It hasn't lost its way.