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Tiger Woods is not here, so we look back and we forward, because that’s what we do

The Masters will start on Thursday with fewer patrons at Augusta National than is customary, however greater than attended final yr’s model, which had been pushed by the pandemic into November and contested with out spectators in a type of empty sports activities cathedrals that we got here so rapidly to acknowledge and, in a compromise with our souls, to grudgingly embrace. (We’re nonetheless doing this: Last Saturday evening Jalen Suggs made one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history, with roughly 8,000 followers rattling round inside an enormous soccer stadium and we: Did. Not. Care. In the least. Our wants have confirmed extra elastic than anticipated).

The Masters will turn out to be the primary of America’s tentpole, one-off sporting appointments to lurch tantalizingly near regular (adopted in 4 weeks by the Kentucky Derby and then by the Indianapolis 500, because the calendar turns into blessedly extra acquainted). This weekend, not like final autumn, there will likely be azaleas, and (presumably) muted roars.

There will likely be no Tiger Woods. Of course. He is early in his restoration from the Feb. 23, one-car auto accident in Southern California that left him with critical accidents to his proper leg and required a number of surgical procedures, and has imperiled his profession and, extra importantly, his high quality of life. (More on this forward).

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So this weekend we will likely be reminded once more of that singular strata of sports activities superstar energy whereby an occasion is outlined in some vital method by a single athlete. You know, prior to now: The Tour de France and pre-scandal Lance Armstrong. The Summer Olympics and Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. In the current: The French Open and Rafael Nadal. The Kentucky Derby and white-haired, shades-wearing coach Bob Baffert. The Summer Olympics and Simone Biles.

Each of those occasions is a lot larger than a single identify, but grows in stature and accessibility because of that single identify, reaching into in any other case ambivalent household rooms. (As a child, I’d watch the Masters with my father; he was not a Jack Nicklaus fan, however Saturdays and Sundays have been spent assessing the chance of a Bear Charge up the leaderboard). Tiger impacts the Masters as a lot by his absence as by his presence. (Although he has been equally absent and current for eight years, taking part in 4 instances and lacking 4).

The match has been his, and largely his, since he gained it by 12 strokes as a 21-year-old in 1997, formally launching probably the most noticed golf profession in historical past (and among the many most noticed lives, in or out of sports activities, not all the time in a great way). Woods’ impact on the economics of golf have been endlessly documented; he modified the course of a complete sport’s path, from the skilled degree to munis throughout the nation. Likewise, he infused its demographics with hope for youths of colour. That impact is spectacular on the web page, however beautiful in three-dimensional actual life.

I’ve coated just one Masters, Patrick Reed’s win in 2018. On Tuesday morning of that week, searching for the Tiger Experience, I walked a follow spherical with Woods, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters. (Thomas Pieters!). The group was adopted for 18 (technically, however not virtually) meaningless holes by an enormous gallery, three- and four-deep in every single place. This was barely a yr after Woods lastly addressed his back issues with lumbar spinal fusion, and he was getting higher, however not but able to win. That would come a yr later. But there was an ease to his motion and to his smile, at the same time as he grinded alongside to a 32nd-place end.

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After that follow spherical, Couples stated, “When you play with Tiger, and you play in the tournament, the energy is unreal.’’ There was a sense in the air that Tiger was capital-b Back. (Sure, pun intended, Why not?). The discourse was a mix of hosannas to Tiger’s career and his influence – “I’ve had a respect and appreciation for [Woods] and what he’s done for the game, and I’ve benefited more than anyone else,’’ said Mickelson, and he has never wavered from that position over the years – and a real-time respect for his reconstructed game. “The sound of his ball is unreal,’’ said Couples. And so on. It was all prelude to what came a year later, a stunning, gripping victory that had seemed so unlikely so recently before.

But here is the thing about consuming sports: It should center on the moment in front of us, but it’s often more about what transpired before and after that moment. (Back to Jaylen Suggs: The net had barely stopped quivering after his half-court bomb before the world began debating its place among other buzzer-beating NCAA finishes). Likewise, our modern sports culture is addicted to projection – We take promise and extrapolate it into unmade history.

Woods is among the most extreme cases: From the moment he won that first Masters; possibly from the moment he won the U.S. Amateur at age 18; maybe even from when he was a toddler curiosity putting on three-channel TV against Bob Hope, Woods’s greatness has been anticipated and predicted.

And to be clear: Wildly fulfilled. He is high among the best players in history (Nicklaus, Hogan, Jones) and when those aforementioned fiscal and cultural influences are factored in, it’s really not close. But all that is complicated, too. Because we have never stopped wanting more from Woods. In the afterglow of every transcendent moment, we looked ahead to the next one, because his career has often been measured by what he accumulated, rather than by what he did.

For so many years after ’97, there was an assumption that he would blow past Nicklaus’s career record of 18 majors; then there was an assumption that he most assuredly would not. But as soon as he won the Masters in ’19, at age 43 (second in age only to Nicklaus’s ’86 win at 45), that topic was immediately put back in play, when the more responsible angle might have been that his back – or some other age-related malady – was likely to make us consider that last Masters a miracle of sorts, and certainly a coda. And it may yet.

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Woods is not alone in this regard. Once greatness is established, it becomes addictive to the masses. And sports careers are short (though longer nowadays, like Tom Brady’s, although he is an outlier), which gives their audience just a slice of a generation to consume, to absorb, to want. “The Last Dance” made us understand how a lot we miss Michael Jordan. Not the identical kind of adoration, however Lebron James will likely be gone quickly, too. And Roger Federer and Nadal. Phelps and Bolt, gone already, Bolt greater than a decade youthful than Woods, Phelps simply much less.

But with golfers, it’s somewhat totally different. Woods gained that Masters at 43, and, Brady excepted, that’s long gone the expiration date for many athletes. So whereas it might have been unrealistic to anticipate a complete new rash of main titles for Woods at that time, with a fused backbone, it wasn’t loopy. The window was open. It was much less open in February, when his SUV tumbled off that serpentine downhill in Rancho Palos Verdes, and now it’s hardly open in any respect. And that underscores probably the most vexing a part of Woods’s legacy: Despite the 82 Tour victories, regardless of the 15 majors, regardless of the moments, there’s a real What If?

The first whiff of vulnerability was a dodgy knee. It occurs. The second was the infidelity scandal of late 2009, wherein Woods’ kids, ex-wife, and Woods himself have been the principal victims. And it’s not necessary to ask how this affected his profession, but it surely’s intriguing. He didn’t win a significant from the scandal till two years in the past at Augusta, however in fact it wasn’t simply the scandal. His physique was crumbling on the identical time. It’s as affordable to surmise that Woods was destined to present the world these 12 unimaginable years from ’97 to ’08 and little extra, because it is to surprise how far more he might have given.

But the narrative is already taking part in out once more. Woods is 45 years outdated, with the physique of a a lot older man and psyche that’s been subjected to 10 lifetimes of public scrutiny, a few of it unfathomably embarrassing. It’s been repeated on an infinite loop that he was lucky to outlive the February accident. The golf dialogue ought to in all probability be shelved, however at the same time as he lay within the hospital, his odds of taking part in – and successful – once more have been debated. Possibility is by no means shelved with Woods.

The Masters will produce drama with out Woods, because it all the time does. But you’ll hear his identify this weekend, and he will likely be missed. He will likely be in Augusta, even with out being current. Somewhere, his physique is therapeutic. Perhaps sufficient to compete once more. We will hold anticipating another win, till he tells us it’s not coming.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was beforehand a senior author at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

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