AUGUSTA, Ga. – Two things are missing from this Masters. One is the best golfer of his generation. The other is a tree. At his annual press conference, the chairman of Augusta National got more questions about the tree.
Everybody has a favorite memory of the Eisenhower Tree. Mine is from a few years ago, when I saw the tree bend over and rescue twin babies from a fox that had walked onto the course. It wasn’t quite as dangerous as you might think – the fox knew it was not allowed to run at Augusta National, giving the tree plenty of time to pick up the babies – but still, you just don’t see that kind of selflessness from trees anymore.
I walked around the course Wednesday, and the trees all had this every-tree-for-itself kind of attitude. The saplings acted like they’d never even heard of the Eisenhower Tree.
Anyway, Billy Payne said that when an ice storm hit the tree, he was “in the Bahamas bonefishing,” which elicited laughter from the assembled media. I guess because “bonefishing” is a funny word, but anyway, Payne says that is when he “received the emergency call” and “got back as fast as I could.” Various experts decided the tree was not salvageable. It didn’t seem like my place to ask if last rites were performed.
I actually did walk out to the spot on the 17th hole where the tree used to reside. I looked and thought to myself, “Wow. It was right there, in that very spot. Or over there … maybe 10 yards back? Perhaps on that mound? I’m pretty sure it was in this general vicinity.” A solemn moment, obviously.
There are two ways to think about the Eisenhower Tree. One is that it was a connection to President Eisenhower, who supposedly hit so many balls into the tree that they named it after him. It was a piece of golf history. We all crave a sense of time and place, and the Eisenhower Tree did even better than that, because it gave you a sense of timelessness and place. If you see Augusta National as a golf cathedral, home to both pros walking along flowers and flowery prose, then this is probably how you see the tree.
Then there is the counterargument, which is: IT WAS A TREE. Eisenhower wanted it removed anyway. Let’s just consider this another case of government moving at a very slow pace.
In recent years, the tree didn’t even have much bearing on the tournament because golfers hit the ball longer now due to equipment advances. This isn’t like filling in Rae’s Creek with dirt and sod. The missing tree should not affect the tournament at all.
The beauty of the Masters is either a) people speak way too reverentially about a tree or b) it is a riveting sporting event, even though people do silly things like speak too reverentially about a tree. I’m going with the latter.
There are many people who won’t watch the Masters this week because Tiger Woods is not playing, because he is the biggest star in golf, almost everything he does is interesting, and if he is even in contention on a Saturday, it sparks conversations that no other golfer can inspire. He needs four majors to catch Jack Nicklaus. Most people seem to think he won’t do it, and I understand that. But I think most people would like to see him try.
I’ve heard people say the Masters was great before Tiger and it will be great after Tiger, and that is undeniably true. I’m sure it will be great again this year. Still, this feels weird, kind of like when the Houston Rockets won a championship while Michael Jordan was playing baseball, though not playing it particularly well.
It’s not that Tiger was sure to win or even contended. There is no way to know. But his presence would give the tournament more juice, and it would make the leaderboard seem more impressive, even if he was not on it. Two things are missing from this Masters. I’m glad one of them will come back.