McIlroy aims to step up as US Masters tees off without Tiger
Augusta will not be the same without Woods, but who can fill the void he leaves?
THE FIRST, and arguably grandest, of golf's four Majors gets underway in Georgia today as the top 50 golfers in the world, along with past winners and selected invitees, descend on the Augusta National for the 78th Masters.
But this year the tournament will be missing two of its best-known figures.
The first is the iconic 'Eisenhower Tree', which had to be removed from the 17th fairway in February after crippling weather left it irreparably damaged. The second is four-time winner and current World No1, Tiger Woods, who has been a fixture at Augusta since 1994 and boasts a unsurpassable legacy of Masters' moments.
Woods announced his withdrawal last week after undergoing surgery on a long-standing back problem, and is unlikely to return before the US Open in June, according to The Guardian. "It's frustrating,' said Woods. "But it's something my doctors have advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health."
The absence of the 14-time major champion from this year's tournament has been met with indifference on the part of bookmakers and some commentators, but could have a big impact commercially and on the rest of the field.
Odds barely fluctuated following the announcement, and writing in the Sunday Times last week Hugh McIlvanney questioned how much The Masters would really miss a man who last donned the famous Green Jacket almost a decade ago.
Woods has performed poorly in 2014 thus far - his best finish to date a tie for 25th at a WGC Event in March - and was unlikely to have started the tournament as the bookies' favourite. "I didn't think Tiger was going to be a big part of the picture anyway come the weekend," said two-time Major winner Curtis Strange.
But despite his recent dip in form, there can be no denying Woods' absence will still be keenly felt. Commercially the loss is huge – some ticket sellers have seen sales drop by 10 per cent, claims the Guardian. CBS, the primary golf broadcaster in the US, stands to lose over two million viewers through Woods' absence this weekend and bets are 20 per cent down, says the Daily Telegraph. His chief sponsor Nike will also suffer.
The sight of Tiger stalking through the Augusta pines is one of golf's enduring images. The 38-year-old has been synonymous with the tournament ever since he claimed his first Major there in 1997. The 21-year-old Woods announced his arrival in style as he set the lowest cumulative score in Masters' history and secured the largest ever margin of victory at the tournament.
Wood's absence, though, will be a tonic for the 97 players in this year's event. Writing in the Telegraph James Corrigan says that without Woods "the scenario now seems less like Augusta National and more like the Grand National where outsiders will have a very lively chance".
Few players are better equipped to fill the void than Rory McIlroy, and the young Northern Irishman goes into the tournament as a hot favourite – alongside defending champion Adam Scott. McIlroy will be looking to atone for the final round 80 he carded in 2011, when he blew a four-shot lead in his final round.
But he and Scott are not alone. There have been 17 winners in the 20 US PGA Tour so far this season, and eight men have worn the Green Jacket in the last ten years.
Pressed on the current state of the game in the build-up, McIllroy admitted as much. "Golf in general, and not just The Masters, is wide open at the moment," he said. "There aren't as many guys dominating the sport like in the past with Tiger, Vijay [Singh], and Phil [Mickelson]."
However, McIlroy was also bullish about his chances. "Someone's got to step up," he said, "and I'm trying to establish myself as that player."
The omens look good for McIlroy. Each of the four previous majors where Woods has failed to compete have been won by Irishmen. Padraig Harrington won the 2008 Open and US PGA, Darren Clarke triumphed at the 2011 Open and in 2011 McIlroy himself put in a virtuoso performance at Congressional to secure the US Open.
As for Woods, the real question now is whether he'll be able to keep playing long enough to break Jack Nicklaus' long-standing record of 18 major championships.