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Ben Smith

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No Tiger, still same Masters magic

A pox on the azaleas, I say now. They’re just flowers, right?

They’re just flowers, and Rae’s Creek is just a creek, and Magnolia Lane is just a fancy name for “cart path.” And the Cathedral of Pines, which CBS likes to frame against the slanting sun of late afternoon while Jim Nantz pours on the syrup down there at Augusta National?

Just a bunch of trees.

The Masters might still be the Masters for some of you clods out there, but for me, hey, it’s over before it starts. How can it not be, with the Game of Golf As We Know It nowhere to be found?

Instead, Tiger Woods is off resting his aching back somewhere, which means, of course, that the Masters might as well be the Greater Velveeta Open.

Or so you would think as the news comes out that ticket prices took a notable downturn when Tiger took himself out of the tournament for back surgery, and that the TV ratings are likely to take a similar dip now that the Game of Golf is MIA.

Know what I think about that?

I think my tongue was arc-welded to my cheek when I wrote all that a-pox-on-the-azaleas stuff four or five paragraphs ago.

I think the Masters is still the Masters even without the G.O.G., so let’s get to it. Phil’s on the prowl for a fourth green jacket. Rory’s looking to regain his status as the Next One.

A Bubba Watson could happen again, or a Matt Kuchar, or a Henrik Stenson – or even an Adam Scott, who won it last year.

That’s the future of golf you’re looking at right there. And Tiger, more and more, is its past, even if he continues to cast an outsized shadow over the game.

That he took the game into an entirely new realm (“He’s been the one that’s really propelled and driven the bus because he’s brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest,” Mickelson said this week) is beyond dispute.

That he’s also on the downslope of his career, however, is also beyond dispute.

He’s still the best player on the planet when he’s right – witness 2013, when he won five events – but he’s hardly ever right anymore. What he is, is a 38-year-old man with a left knee that’s gone under the knife and a couple of Achilles that have popped on him and a succession of other maladies. And now back issues, the golfer’s career killer.

He is, in short, a bleeding man in a shark tank, surrounded by a lot of talented young sticks who still revere him but in no way fear him anymore. Jack Nicklaus was just being Jack Nicklaus – i.e., the real Game of Golf – when he said the other day he believed Tiger would still surpass his 18 majors. But he couldn’t have been serious.

On top the physical issues, after all, there are mental ones now. Five years without a major have gotten inside his head, which explains why he invariably falls apart even when he’s in contention. He’s gone 18 majors now without a victory, and the likelihood of his snapping that streak this year appears dim right now.

So maybe this weekend is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to see what life after Tiger is going to be like, because that time draws steadily nearer. It’s an opportunity to fully appreciate just how healthy the game is now, Tiger or no Tiger.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson said this week. “It’s awkward to not have him here.”

Maybe. But more and more, not all that awkward.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.