Even at this, one of the highest-profile events on the PGA Tour, discussion – or occasional whisper – relating to a man who is not playing has seemed relentless. There is good reason.
Last year, Woods waited until the week immediately preceding the first major of the year to confirm he would not participate. A fairly serious case of back surgery provided the explanation.
It is different this time around, the 39-year-old explaining after withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open in early February that he would not return until “tournament ready.” Put bluntly, the man who once laid claim to the finest chipping game of all time has the yips in that area. That is a damaging affliction for any amateur, let alone someone of Woods’s standing.
Time is rapidly running for Woods. That is not just in the context of the 18-major haul of Jack Nicklaus, which seems long gone anyway, but in his bid to re-establish himself as a serious contender in the game. If he does not appear at Augusta, the sense of gradual removal from the sport will be unavoidable.
Should he play, and as acknowledged by the former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley this week, Woods would do Rory McIlroy a favour. Focus on the world No1 will reach fever pitch as he seeks a clean sweep of majors but should Woods return, an alternative storyline would offset some of that. “You can feel the buzz whenever he’s around or if he tees off or he’s on the range,” said McIlroy of Woods this week. “The PGA Tour events are just that little bit better whenever he’s around.”
Other players do not have their Masters destiny in their own hands. Paul Casey’s missed cut by a stroke at the Arnold Palmer Invitational might prove costly, should it contribute in the Englishman slipping from 46th in the world to outside of the top 50 by the time at exemption category closes, at the culmination of next week’s Valero Texas Open.
Casey has not entered San Antonio, something that would look questionable had he not featured in seven events since the turn of the year. There is no indication, either, that Casey will rejoin the European Tour at the start of May and thereby keeping his 2016 Ryder Cup hopes alive.
Casey has obvious Augusta threats. The Scot Marc Warren, 51 in the world, will play in San Antonio. Harris English began the Arnold Palmer Invitational at No52 but his impressive showing has triggered the live possibility of a Masters return. English’s motivation stems from upbringing; he was born, raised and attended university in Georgia. “That’s the one tournament I would watch when I was nine, 10, 11 years old,” the 25-year-old said.
“Growing up in South Georgia, the Masters is the one tournament I always dreamed about playing in. I wouldn’t say it means more to me than any other player but going to school in Athens right down the road and being from Georgia just makes it that much more important.
“I want to be there. A lot of my friends are going to be there – there will be a lot of Georgia guys playing. I want to be right there, on-site.
“That is all an inspiration. I’m kind of on the outside looking in right now; I have got to keep the pedal down and keep aggressive.”
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