- The Augusta Chronicle - Sunday, April 6, 2014

It wasn’t what the early arrivals for the 78th Masters Tournament saw on an overcast Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club that was so jarring to them.

It was what was missing — the Eisenhower Tree and the limbs from some other pine trees, not to mention Tiger Woods.

This will be the first Masters without the Eisenhower Tree, and the first one Woods hasn’t been a part of since 1994.

Woods, a four-time Masters champion, had played practice rounds on the Sunday before the tournament for years, but he is recuperating from back surgery and withdrew Tuesday.

He’s already listed among the non-competing invitees on the big scoreboard next to the first fairway.

The absences didn’t detract from the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. The competition aimed at helping golf attract young people featured 88 boys and girls who competed on the same grounds as Masters participants.

The 65-foot Eisenhower Tree, which was more than 100 years old and 210 yards from the tee on the 17th hole, was lost to a mid-February ice storm. It has not been replaced, and Augusta National Chair­­man Billy Payne said at the time of its removal that “we have begun deliberations of the best way to address the future of the 17th hole and to pay tribute to this iconic symbol of our history – rest assured, we will do both appropriately.”

Payne will elaborate on the future plans for the 17th in his annual news conference Wednesday, but players have been speculating about the hole for in the weeks leading into the Masters.

Most thought there would be a replacement tree in time for the Masters.

Lee Westwood ventured a guess that “I’m sure they’ve got a backup for a backup, knowing them. I’m sure they do.”

Instead, there will be no tree this year.

Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who will be playing in his 43rd Masters, joked that he helped cause the demise of the Eisen­hower Tree.

“I’ve hit that tree so many times I put it in a weakened condition,” he said.

Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Masters champion, said the look from the tee on No. 17 “certainly looks way different” without the tree.

The Eisenhower Tree wasn’t the only tree lost in the ice storm, just the most iconic. The tops of some trees were noticeably sparse Sunday, the first day the media were allowed at the course.

“A lot of the trees have taken some serious damage,” O’Meara said after his practice round.

Some of the tree damage can be seen from the top of the hill behind the 18th green, where portions of the 11th fairway can now be seen.

“If you look at the trees, you can see they are still there but some of the trees, half of the limbs are gone,” O’Meara said. “When you have old trees like these and they’re so tall and you have an ice storm like that, those upper branches can’t withstand the weight of that ice on there over a period of time. It basically thinned out quite a bit of the golf course. But they’ve been on a tree planting program for the last 15 or 20 years.”

Besides the fewer trees, O’Meara said Sunday “seemed different” without Woods around.

Woods had back surgery a week ago and will miss his first Masters since his debut in 1995. The No. 1-ranked player was off to the worst start of his career, but he always plays well in the Masters, even in 2010, when he tied for fourth after not playing in a tournament for five months. In addition to winning the Masters four times, he holds many tournament records, including the 72-hole mark of 18-under 270.

“He’s been so much of a fixture of the place for so long, it’s too bad,” Crenshaw said. “I know how bad he’s going to miss it. We all hate to see injuries. He’s just not in good shape right now. We will really miss him.”

O’Meara, who once served as a mentor to Woods and often played with him on Sundays before the Masters, agreed.

“Anytime he’s not in the field, it’s a little bit of a drawback you would say because he is kind of the face of what golf has been over the last 12 to 15 years. His accomplishments are second to none,” he said.

“I love when the guy plays,” O’Meara said. “I think it creates more of a buzz when Tiger’s here. Yet, saying that, he’s not here and it’s still going to have a great buzz.

“I don’t think in the Masters any one player is above the greatness of this event. This event is what makes players great, which is what has helped mold players like Tiger Woods or certainly with Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnold (Palmer) and the players that will come after Tiger Woods.”

Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion, said Sunday didn’t feel that much different without Woods.

“Obviously, we miss Tiger, but the tournament is bigger than Tiger,” he said. “No offense to him, and we do miss him. We wish him well and hope he gets back. It still feels the same. It’s still the Mas­ters.”

Without Woods, the attention will turn to other established stars such as three-time champion Phil Mick­el­son, defending champion Adam Scott and No. 3-ranked Henrik Stenson – and a talented group of Masters rookies. One of the record 24 rookies could join Horton Smith (1934), Gene Sarazen (1935) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979) as the only players to win in their first Masters start.

Included among the first-timers are former Augusta State golfer Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker, who have each won three times since last year’s Masters.

Jordan Spieth, a 20-year Texan who has already won on the PGA Tour and was ranked 13th in the world before Sunday’s Texas Open, was among the first-timers playing practice rounds Sunday.

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