Tiger Woods’ absence trains Masters spotlight on younger stars

Written By BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media Posted: 04/06/2014, 02:31am

The Eisenhower Tree is down. Tiger Woods is out.

But there still will be plenty of bark and bite in the Masters, which begins Thursday on Magnolia Lane.

The tree, which bothered presidential golf nut Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 17th-hole tee shots, was taken down in February after being damaged badly by an ice storm.

Meanwhile, Woods, 38, will remain stuck on 14 majors. He had back surgery Monday and is out indefinitely.

‘‘It’s a huge disappointment,’’ analyst Paul Azinger said. ‘‘But it’s still the Masters. It’s still an epic event. Once [it] gets going, the Masters carries its own weight.’’

The Masters is a rite of spring, and a frozen nation needs that more than ever this year. With temperatures expected to be in the mid- to upper 70s all week — and maybe even in the 80s on the weekend — the azaleas and dogwood trees should be especially inspirational.

With four-time winner Woods not in the field for the first time in 20 years, some of the buzz will be gone for casual fans. But this is also a chance to focus on the next generation of stars, as well as on some current standouts.

An impressive group of youngsters will be jockeying with Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and their familiar rivals for glory at iconic Augusta National, the most familiar stage in major golf.

Among the young guns, here are some obvious candidates: Patrick Reed, 23, who already has won twice this season (Palm Springs and Doral); Harris English, 24, who is fourth in the FedEx Cup standings; and Jordan Spieth, 20, who was voted the 2013 PGA Tour rookie of the year after winning the John Deere Classic in dramatic fashion.

That said, there’s a reason why Augusta National favors the veteran approach.

Start with uneven lies; the course is much hillier than it looks on TV. Add the so-called ‘‘Tiger-proofing’’ length that has been added. Put the weekend pressure on top of that. And know that underneath it all are some of the trickiest green configurations in golf.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North shot a 66 in his first round at the Masters and an 81 the next day.

‘‘This is going to sound really stupid, but I didn’t play much differently either day,’’ North said. ‘‘The first day, I had it below the hole every single hole. [I saw] Augusta from the wrong side of every hole the next day.’’

That’s why, despite some immensely talented youngsters, it makes sense to err on the side of experience at Augusta.

McIlroy, who’s trying to add a third major, and Scott, who won the Masters last year by dialing in his inconsistent putter, are the favorites. Also in the hunt are Justin Rose, who broke through at the U.S. Open last year, and Matt Kuchar, who has finished third and eighth at the last two Masters. Aching three-time winner Phil Mickelson, 43, has been under the radar lately, but he always seems to perk up when a green jacket is at stake.

Players who are lurking but would rate as a bit of a shock if they donned the green jacket include up-and-down Dustin Johnson, putter-shaky Sergio Garcia and don’t-get-around-much Steve Stricker.

There are lots of reasons why they’re not likely to win, but Augusta is a place that often produces winners like that.

Especially with Tiger out.

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