AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Augusta National driving range was bustling with activity under a blazing morning sun Tuesday with players honing their games in pursuit of a coveted Masters green jacket.
One player was conspicuous by his absence.
His presence on these hallowed grounds has been overwhelming at times during the past two-plus decades as he’s rewritten history — not just for the Masters but for all of golf.
Woods, after all, has won the Masters five times, only one short of Jack Nicklaus’ record six. And, in these COVID-19 times, he’s the last player to have won it when it was played in April, two years ago.
Given the state of Woods’ life at the moment — laid up at his Florida home recovering from horrific injuries to his lower right leg and ankle sustained in that frightening Feb. 23 car accident in Los Angeles — that 2019 Masters victory of his feels like it took place 10 years ago, not two.
On the surface, the absence of Woods this week at Augusta would be a big story, headline news.
But it’s not.
• Because the game waits for no one, regardless of star status.
• Because the sobering reality is that golf slowly has conditioned itself to not having Woods around very much.
This is the fourth time in the past eight years that Woods has been unable to play the Masters because of injury. And, based on the ominous reports of his injuries from the car crash, it’s realistic to wonder whether Woods will ever play another Masters again as a legitimate competitor.
Before the accident, Woods’ 45-year-old body already had endured surgeries totaling around double figures on his back, knee and Achilles. The focus since his accident has been about the major injuries sustained to his leg and ankle. What hasn’t been spoken about is what further damage the trauma might have done to his back, which at the time of the crash he was still rehabbing after December surgery.
No one — likely not even Woods himself — knows what lies ahead as far as whether he’ll play golf again and, if so, whether that can be competitive golf.
It’s possible Woods’ days of playing in the Masters might be skewing heavily toward the ceremonial golf into which the greats before him such as Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus eventually transitioned.
The hope is that’s not the case, that Woods will still have some firepower to compete at the highest level again. If that happens, it’ll be a welcomed bonus.
But Woods’ latest health incident seems to have pushed him further from competitive relevancy in the sport he dominated for two decades.
The game is moving on without Woods, the same way it did when Palmer and Nicklaus were no longer competitively relevant.
Greg Norman, who in his prime was one of the most dominant players in golf history, experienced that firsthand.
“It happens to every sport and every generation worldwide,’’ Norman told The Post. “When Pelé left soccer, did soccer have a giant hole in it? No. The sport survives any individual. When Michael Schumacher left Formula I [racing] because of an accident, was that the end of Formula 1? Absolutely not.
“When Michael Jordan left the NBA, was that the end of the NBA? Absolutely not. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James came after him and carried on the sport’s tradition. To me, there should never be any athlete — male or female — who should be ahead of the sport they play in. It should always be the sport that’s ahead of them.
“Sports will always survive because of that. You think the PGA Tour is going to fall apart because Tiger Woods is not there? Hell no. The PGA Tour will survive.”
So, too, of course will the Masters.
Justin Thomas, one of Woods’ closest friends, said what he misses most about not having Woods at Augusta this week is “playing the practice rounds with him for sure.’’
“We texted Friday morning, and he said it’s kind of starting to set in; he’s bummed he’s not here playing practice rounds with us. And we hate it, too,’’ Thomas said.
Woods’ absence certainly was felt at Tuesday night’s annual Champions Dinner. It was only five months ago, at the November Masters, that Woods was hosting the dinner as the defending champion.
Life moves fast.
The game waits for no one.