By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - It is often said that no one person is bigger than the sport, but 14-times major champion Tiger Woods comes pretty close in golf to being an exception to the rule.
With Woods sitting out the Masters for only the second time since his tournament debut in 1995, the focus, as it should be, will be on those players who are competing at Augusta National.
But until the four-times Masters champion officially retires from competition, there will always be a feeling that a Masters without him is like a party being held without its most interesting guest.
The last time Woods skipped Augusta National was two years ago, when the final round ratings on U.S. television were the lowest in 50 years. Hardly a coincidence, one would think.
Woods, 40, has not played competitively since last August. He underwent a microdiscectomy on his lower back in September, and had a follow-up procedure a few weeks later.
His recovery has been slow at best.
"It will be radically different than 2014 when he was fresh off regaining his number one ranking," former PGA Tour winner Frank Nobilo told Reuters about the absence of Woods at this year's Masters.
"He had been a feature in seven of his previous eight starts at Augusta and his physical issues weren't truly known. At 38, he was still the game.
"But over the last two seasons the void created by his sporadic play has been filled by golf's multi-pronged attack and this has changed the focal point of today's game.
"No longer do you need a microscope to find the best of the rest, and nor does Woods have to live under it (the microscope)."
Nobilo was painting a picture of how the game has moved on, with golf now 'owned' by players a decade or two younger than Woods.
Twenty-somethings Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and others represent both the present and the future of the sport.
It surely says something about the march of time that just two years ago the absence of Woods from the Masters, after his first microdiscectomy, dominated the headlines.
Now his absence is much less shocking, as if golf fans have finally come to terms with the new 'Tiger-less' landscape.
If Woods does return to the Masters in future years, the tournament will be the better for his participation. In the meantime, however, life and sport both go on.
"The Masters is the first major of the year and the time when we take stock of where the game is," said New Zealander Nobilo, who will be part of the CBS commentary team at Augusta National.
"Anyone born post-1980, like the players, will still notice Tiger's non participation."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)