Perfect place for Rory McIlroy and his peers to open a gap on Tiger Woods
It seems faintly ludicrous to have the preamble to one of the most significant sporting occasions of the year dominated by someone who is not even a part of it. That, however, is the reality of . Iconic status casts its shadow when golf's world No1 is not on the premises.
What can also be said without fear of contradiction is that there has been no finer time for the game's pretenders to topple Woods from his throne. Permanently, that is. They would almost admit as much themselves.
asserted last week that golf would benefit from a dominant figure – as Woods once was – or the kind of top-level duel which the 14-times major winner previously revelled in. Woods' impact on his sport will not be matched anytime soon but his professional fallibility opens doors for others to at least aspire to greatness. McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, say, have genuine chances to complete a grand slam of majors before their careers end.
It would be unfair to belittle surprise major champions. Nonetheless, the key four events of the year should provide the canvas upon which the finest players display their work. These must be special occasions producing special winners, when too often in a modern era they culminate with a whimper rather than a roar. Augusta, thankfully, has not witnessed many such denouements in further demonstrating its unique appeal.
Any string of obscure triumphs does little to emphasise the status of majors as the tournaments which appropriately reward the best. Major wins count, more than anything else, by the end of a career. It should never be good enough to cite financial reward or ranking status as a viable alternative.
The harsh reality for Woods is that his battle to win another major, let alone match Jack Nicklaus' record of 18, is a more significant one than people realised until recently.
Writing off Woods has proved a dangerous business but there is a growing sense of inevitability – and sadness – surrounding the physical decline of a great sportsman. Whatever Woods' past problems, personal or physical, he always turned up for the Masters. Not this time. Those organising the event would never admit it, but this week provides a glimpse of things to come as and when Woods removes himself from the competitive scene entirely.
Some black humour has arisen around Augusta National this week at the sight of Woods' coach, Sean Foley, hobbling around the range on crutches as he recovers from an injury of his own. Insight into the upcoming Woods struggle arrived from a man who knows a thing or two about the major scene, Arnold Palmer. "Tiger is going to have to overcome the fact that he won as much as he did; he is going to have to refresh that in his mind and his psychological approach to the game," he said.
This, in theory, should offer hope to others. Augusta National is the perfect venue for McIlroy and his peers to put promise into practice, thereby creating a gap for Woods to bridge when he makes his return from back surgery. Woods may have won five times last year but his run without a major, stretching back to 2008 at Torrey Pines, has never seriously looked like ending.
If McIlroy does not soon end his own period without a victory in the United States, dating from September 2012, the Northern Irishman will not have any cause to resent criticism. In fact, McIlroy would lead that analysis himself.
Even as an amateur, McIlroy has never resembled Woods in terms of sheer volume of tournament success but he remains one of precious few players in this field who can capture the imagination of a fresh generation. Put simply, a McIlroy win this weekend would be a terrific thing for modern golf.
Considering his level of ability, it is ridiculous to see McIlroy lying No9 in the world. He remains in everyone's thoughts but McIlroy knows perfectly well that a high-profile success, and particularly the donning of a Green Jacket, would blast him back into the golfing forefront he was earlier accustomed to. At 24, McIlroy's peak years may be all ahead of him but he is anxious for tangible success, which represents an impressive scenario in itself.
He is not alone. Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose are relative veterans in comparison to Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Patrick Reed. Scott has a legitimate opportunity to etch an indelible mark in history by successfully defending his title. Rose finally knows what it takes to triumph in a major after doing precisely that in terrific fashion at Merion last June. Stenson's epic success in 2013 identified him as a player who has fully recovered from the demons which once undermined his career.
Those more youthful have already proven at various stages that they care little for standing on ceremony. Given Woods' situation, they should also eye the potential to play their part in a fresh legacy.
Before even contemplating that, competitors must handle Augusta's distinct challenges. This is a seductive if spooky venue, a place which for all its beauty gives the impression that even walls and trees could have ears. Average holes – of which, believe it or not, there are a few – are made to look terrific. The best ones really are outstanding. None of them could ever be deemed easy.
Players quiver at the prospect of missing greens on the wrong side. A strong mentality is essential for any leading player but at Augusta that draining intensity grips them from the moment they enter Magnolia Lane. Not everyone can handle that.
Woods could. Discussion over that mindset has formed part of this, the 78th Masters week. It is a conversation which routinely takes place in the past tense, though; thereby providing impetus to others.