You know the sound a golf gallery makes when a five-foot birdie putt lips out?
That's the groan that also accompanied the news that a rehabbing Tiger Woods would miss the Masters for the first time since 1994. That year, Jose Maria Olazabal triumphed on a 6,925-yard course, and Woods was voted "most likely to succeed" by classmates at Western High in Anaheim.
Without Woods, there's no "Will he pass Jack Nicklaus" talk. There's less buzz. Fewer casual fans will tune in.
CBS' Jim Nantz, during an appearance on "The Dan Patrick Show," called Woods' absence "the story that dwarfs all others."
But as Nantz pointed out, who's to say that Woods would have contended anyway? He has completed only 10 rounds in PGA Tour events this year, breaking 70 three times. Physically, he's a wreck.
"We will miss Tiger for sure," Nantz said, "but that tournament is never about one player. I can't wait to see what the next script is to be written."
Rory McIlroy hopes to fill the void left by Woods. Even before Woods bowed out after back surgery, McIlroy was the favorite to win his third major on what is now a 7,435-yard course.
"Golf is always better when Tiger Woods is in the conversation," McIlroy said before teeing it up at the Houston Open. "It's almost like golf is waiting for someone to stamp their authority on the game and be that dominant player. A few guys need to put their hand up … and sort of break away. I hope it's me."
It has been an odd season on the PGA Tour, as the four winners on the Florida swing (Russell Henley, Patrick Reed, John Senden and Matt Every) ranked outside the world's top 40. Jimmy Walker has been dynamite, winning three times in 12 events.
Reed, at 23, declared himself one of the top five players in the world on the way to his third tour victory in seven months. (The stubborn world golf rankings, which factor in two years of results, have him 22nd. That's up from 584th at the end of 2012.)
Defending Masters champion Adam Scott ranks second to Woods, followed by Henrik Stenson, Jason Day and Phil Mickelson.
There was concern about Mickelson when he withdrew during the third round of the Texas Open after pulling an oblique muscle. But Thursday provided some relief to his fans.
After working on his short game at Augusta National earlier in the week, he shot a bogey-free 68 at the Houston Open and said his side "feels sore like I was working out, as opposed to kind of a painful experience." He followed up with rounds of 70 and 72.
"He has been a mess lately and he's hurt a little bit," ESPN analyst Andy North said of Mickelson, a three-time winner at Augusta. "[But] he drives down [Magnolia] Lane and the switch goes on. If his back is doing well, I think he's going to be a threat."
Another star, Dustin Johnson, withdrew at Houston after shooting an opening-round 80, with agent David Winkle texting the Golf Channel: "Just a little stiffness in his back. Nothing serious, just being very careful so he's ready to roll next week."
Every player wants to peak next weekend because regardless of whether Woods is present, there's nothing like the Masters.
"[It] always has been the highest-rated and most anticipated golf tournament of the year," CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said. "That was true before Tiger played in it. It's true when Tiger [plays] in it and it will be true when Tiger is no longer playing."
ESPN analyst Paul Azinger called the absence of the world's No. 1 player "a huge disappointment" for the media.
"But it's still the Masters and it's still this epic event," he said. "The shock, disappointment and the reason he's not here, I think it will present a little bit of a challenge possibly at first, but once that tournament gets going, the Masters carries its own weight."
Arnold Palmer, whose life will be examined in a three-part documentary debuting April 13 on the Golf Channel, put it this way: "I was playing with Lloyd Mangrum, one of the great players in our time, and one day we were walking down the fairway. He said: 'Arnie, I've won the national open, fought in wars and [won] awards for all kinds of military stuff. I'd give it all up if I could have just one Masters.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun