Rabalais: No Tiger and no Eisenhower tree means this is a different Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Two things are missing from the 78th Masters tournament that everyone is talking about: Tiger Woods and the Eisenhower tree.

One has been recently showing signs of ill health and advancing age with various limbs finally succumbing to Father Time.

The other is a tree that was splintered by an ice storm and had to be removed.

Woods isn’t here this week, couldn’t even make it to Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner because he has been immobilized by back surgery. It’s called a microdiscectomy. If it sounds delicate, it’s because it is. It could mean he won’t compete in a single major this year, the year when three of the four majors are being played on courses where he’s won (Augusta National, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla).

It could mean he’s never the same golfer again. This is a guy who has had three surgeries on his left knee, a cracked tibia, issues with both Achilles tendons, problems with his neck and a shoulder blade. And now disc surgery.

If it was anyone but Woods, you’d say he and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 major titles (Tiger has been stuck on 14 since 2008) would be over. But he is Tiger, and though personally I don’t think he can win the five majors past 38 he needs to pass Nicklaus (only Ben Hogan won five majors after 38), it will remain one of the most compelling chases in sports.

But back to the Tiger-less, Eisenhower Tree-less 2014 Masters. Not a Masters that feels stodgy and restrained and tradition-bound but one that has the feel of openness, of wild possibilities. Of unknowns.

No, we do not expect Carl Spackler (“A former greenskeeper, now about to become Masters champion”) to come hacking through the brush from next door Augusta Country Club and make off with the green jacket.

But there are 24 first-timers in the field of 97, a record for this venerable event. Only three first-timers have ever won — the last Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago, led around by the nose by an Augusta National caddy named Jariah Beard who picked every club and read every putt for him.

Maybe there’s a first timer out there — like former University High phenom Patrick Reed, Zurich Classic of New Orleans defending champion Billy Horschel or FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker — who will get that warm Fuzzy feeling Sunday afternoon, slip his arms into a borrowed green sports coat and feel his life change.

It seems like it has more of a chance of happening with Tiger not in the field. Whether that’s true or not — he was an early betting favorite before he withdrew despite not posting a top-10 finish this year — it seems true. And that leaves even Woods’ most-hardened rivals feeling like they’re tightroping across Rae’s Creek without a net.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” said three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who clearly relished the idea of tying Tiger and Arnold Palmer with four green jackets if Woods were here to beat. “It makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”

If the immense hand-operated Masters scoreboards look like wide open spaces with the name “Woods” tucked into storage, the 17th hole is the physical embodiment of that sans its most famous feature.

The Eisenhower Tree was a giant pine, spreading its arms across the left half of the fairway on the par-4 17th. It was an absolute menace, one that Augusta National member Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to have cut down while he was president.

He failed. It says something about the essence of this club that the most powerful man in the world at the time could mobilize an armored division or send a naval task force steaming halfway around the world, but he couldn’t get his golf club to cut down the damn tree that kept Charlie Brown-ing his tee shots.

I would give anything for a quote from Ike now, now that his tree (and a smaller one behind it called Ike Junior) have been paved over with more of Augusta’s impossibly green grass.

The fairway has grown from 18 to 36 yards in width, which would seemingly make a moderately testy par-4 a birdie hole. Masters and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne — who runs a club flush with so much cash that it could line the pond at 16 with moon rocks if the whim suited — said instead Wednesday the green jackets will be monitoring scoring quite closely this year to see what, if anything, they should do in the future.

So will we see a new Eisenhower Tree on 17 next year? Will we see a bionically repaired Tiger Woods in 2015 trying to hit over it without clutching his lumbar region? Will a virtual unknown come leaping out of the pack to capture the most prized major in golf?

So many questions.

It’s time to start answering a few.