Masters Reflections: Golf Doesn’t Need Tiger Any More

Apr 9, 2017; Augusta, GA, USA; Justin Rose walks to the 11th green during the final round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2017; Augusta, GA, USA; Justin Rose walks to the 11th green during the final round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2017 Masters Tournament captured the enduring nature of the game of golf as new heroes replaced those who have been lost.

The Masters Tournament is one of the game’s annual iconic moments and the 2017 Masters was no exception. Yet this year The Masters also offered some valuable lessons about the enduring, yet ever-changing nature of the game.

Some familiar and loved faces were missing from the Masters Tournament scene, but they have been replaced by new faces who, like those we’ve lost, will become loved even idolized as they make their mark on the game.

Masters Losses: Arnie, Tiger, Seve, DJ

This annual early spring test of the greatest in the game began with the traditional ceremonial shot, but this year it was a bittersweet beginning moment. An empty chair with Arnie’s green jacket draped over the back symbolized for most of us the enormous loss the game is experiencing with his passing, and Gary Player, wiping tears from his eyes before he gamely stepped up to the first tee, made very clear the depth of personal loss those who know Arnold Palmer are feeling this spring.

As profound as his passing has been to the game, Arnold Palmer was not the only significant presence missing from the 2017 Masters Tournament.

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There was surprisingly little conversation about Tiger Woods once his withdrawal from competition was announced on his website. This year was the 20th anniversary of Tiger’s first Masters win and Tiger fans had hoped to see him back on the tee, but they seemed to bear their disappointment gracefully.

The 2017 Masters was going to end on April 8 – it would have been Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday. The man who wielded his clubs with a special flair was in the thoughts of many in the 2017 Masters field, players still feeling his passing keenly.

But the loss many felt as 1st round tee times at Augusta National approached this year didn’t end until the entire field had teed off because the odds-on favorite to win the 2017 Masters, Dustin Johnson, tried and failed to move his body beyond a freak injury, but ultimately failed. DJ walked away from the first tee without hitting a shot.

The Game Continues

But as we have learned again and again, the game goes on even as some players fade from the field and new challengers emerge.  With Johnson’s withdrawal the 2017 Masters was suddenly a new, wide open contest. Some thought the potentially inclement weather might favor McIlroy. Others speculated that Spieth had exorcised the demons lurking around the 12th hole and would make a spectacular comeback.

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We’ll never know what might have been, of course. But we do know that the field and fans alike seized on the opening Johnson’s withdrawal created with a sizzling frisson.

Speculation about how Spieth or McIlroy or Day might take advantage of the opening soon evaporated, eclipsed by Charley Hoffman’s amazing 1st round 65, a round Golf’s Alan Bastable described as one of the “great first rounds at the Masters.” It didn’t quite match the 63 Greg Norman carded in 1996 but the numbers don’t always tell the entire tale. Hoffman’s round included two 3-putts and a water ball. It was a downright amazing round of golf!

The tournament rolled on. Hoffman couldn’t sustain the pace he’d set and Spieth flirted shamefully with the cut line, but the sun prevailed and by the weekend the wind had calmed down. Danny Willet was sidelined but couldn’t go home. He had Sunday afternoon obligations. What remained of the field got down to the business of determining who was going to win the thing.

Heading into Masters Sunday

Hoffman’s 1st round 65 kept him on the front page of the board until the wheels came off his game on Sunday. Phil Mickelson launched what can only be described as an heroic if ultimately flawed attempt to slip on a 3rd jacket.

Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, playing Sunday in the penultimate group, drained all the energy out of each other and Spieth, despite our hopes and predictions, couldn’t dispel those 12th hole demons.  But long before the 12th hole the pair of hopeful young guns and spring break buddies were falling back.

Jon Rahm probably had more fun on Sunday than anybody else at Augusta National, except perhaps Stewart Hagestad. We all enjoyed Rahm’s energy and obvious delight – and we all knew he was giving us a glimpse into the future of the game as we watched him work his way around the Augusta National track.

Kuch gave us an unexpected ace on the 16th and completely transformed the life of one young fan sporting a Sam Snead hat, but even an ace couldn’t give him the boost he needed to challenge the battle of the titians that was developing behind him.

Still, that ace is worth a 2nd look:

Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose are friends and Ryder Cup teammates. They know each other’s games about as well as two players can, and we sensed that theirs was a potential match for the ages when the pair went into Sunday at the Masters sharing the lead. We knew and they knew one would fall. There could be no other outcome.

The patrons who lined the Augusta National fairways hoped for a battle that equaled the 1977 Open Championship duel in the sun at Turnberry between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, or the Sunday Shootout between Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open at Royal Troon. They got what they came for!

By the time they made the turn Sunday afternoon Garcia and Rose were deep into a 9-hole singles match that essentially excluded everyone else on the Augusta National course. Like Watson and Nickalus, like Mickelson and Stenson, like Tiger in 1997, like Seve making birdie from the parking lot at the 1979 Open, they showed us what golf at its best can be – a shot-by-shot contest between equals locked in competition but still able in the game’s finest tradition able to acknowledge and complement each other’s shots.

Justin Rose, who reigned supreme in Rio, was gracious in defeat. Garcia, who has battled a host of invisible demons and struggled to fulfill his potential, knelt in gratitude with his victory. It was an amazing and perfect ending to the 2017 Masters Tournament.

As I watched them play out those final 9 holes and then go into the playoff, I fell in love again with this ancient game that has the potential to bring out the best and most honorable in all of us.

Masters Sunday was Sergio Garcia’s day, but the bench is deep and talented. Jon Rahm, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Thomas Pieters, Matt Fitzpatrick – they’re all part of a generation of athletes poised to take the game forward. Tiger Woods is their hero, but he’s not their competitor, not any more.

Next: Top 20 US Open Triumphs

Golf is a game in which each generation delivers a new group of heroes. As Arnie and Seve and eventually Tiger step back from the circle of active champions, new heroes emerge. Sergio Garcia stepped into that circle on Masters Sunday.