What's weirder: No Tiger, or would-be mystery?

Tiger Woods during a 2012 news conference at Augusta National.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – For the first time since 1994, Tiger Woods isn’t at the Masters. That means everyone with vocal cords says the vibe isn’t the same without him. It’s to the point that two of the central questions being asked this week are about two institutions that aren’t here: Woods and the Eisenhower tree.

An ice storm knocked out the tree and a spinal storm sidelined Woods. Masters chairman Billy Payne naturally was asked about both Wednesday and regarding the latter said, “We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world.” The day before, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said it was “weird” without Woods on the premises.

It remains to be seen how much of an electricity shortage there will be without Woods, for the Masters can stand on its own high voltage. Anyway, this kind of conjecture got us wondering what the Masters would be like to this point had Woods shown up after postponing his back surgery to next week.

It might have gone something like this:

• • •

After almost a month away from competition, the sabbatical necessary so he could get treatment for back spasms, Woods shows up Sunday and hits a few putts and chips and tries to stay out of the way of the kids in the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Augusta National.

“I haven’t seen this many little kids on a golf course since like a year after I was on that Mike Douglas Show,” Woods says, looking around. “I’ve got clubs taller than some of them.”

Speculation escalates because Woods doesn’t play any holes Sunday. Will he play in the Masters or won’t he? Considering the layoff and injury, could he possibly contend?

On Monday, Woods avoids inquiries and plays nine holes. A corps of about 1,200 reporters and broadcasters follows him during those nine holes of practice. The news media notices that he seems tentative at times, sometimes grabbing his back and making odd-looking facial expressions, as if he were experiencing pain.

Answers, if you could call them that, wouldn’t come until his Tuesday news conference, the most highly anticipated Q&A session in world golf for some time.

“How’s your back?” a reporter asks.

“What back?” Woods says, smiling slyly.

“The one that has kept you off the radar for a month.”

“Well, it’s still a process,” Woods says. “Just like the swing was.”

“Will you be able to play Thursday?”

“Don’t know. Check the first tee then and find out.”

Another reporter asks if Woods has had an MRI and what the diagnosis is.

“I’ve done the protocols,” Woods says.

“All the protocols like back in March?”

“Yes, all the protocols.”

A newspaperman from South Carolina presses on, asking, “What exactly are the protocols?”

“Protocols are protocols,” Woods says.

The exchange is proceeding like some sort of Saturday Night Live skit, but a pesky radio guy from suburban Atlanta doesn’t see the humor. He seems agitated by the evasive answers and asks, “Tiger, why are you so secretive about your injuries?”

“That’s a secret,” Woods says.

A basement blogger, one who somehow got a Masters credential for the first time, tells Woods he watched the nine holes of practice closely and adds, “I noticed you winced on every odd hole and grimaced on every even hole. So your back is still bad?”

“What’s the difference between a wince and a grimace?” Woods asks.

“I’m not exactly sure,” the basement blogger shoots back, “but that’s what it looked like.”

Right about then, a pajama typist who had sneaked into the news conference blurts out, “Tiger, let’s cut to the chase. What are the odds you are going to play this week?”

“Do I look like a Vegas bookmaker?” Woods says, drawing laughter. “I don’t know. My back is in the hands of my therapists.”

“Literally in the hands of your therapists?”

“Yes, literally,” Woods says before adding, “By the way, I’ve never seen you before.”

“You haven’t seen me before because I’m a pajama typist and this is my first tournament.”

“Does that mean you type at home in your pajamas?” Woods asks.

“Yes,” the man says. “I have 6-7 different pairs I rotate at home.”

At this point, the Masters member overseeing the news conference intervenes and strongly advises that the talk get back to golf. Then a veteran scribe pipes in with, “Tiger, you've won four Masters, but how is it possible you haven’t won since 2005?”

“I haven’t shot the lowest score,” Woods says. “It’s been a little of this, a little of that.”

“In other words, one damned thing after another, like Churchill said about history?” the veteran scribe says.

“Something like that,” Woods says.

After all this, no one is closer to knowing whether Woods will tee it up in the 78th Masters. Frustrated, a mustachioed man in a bowtie blurts out, “Come on, Tiger, are you going to play?”

“I don’t know,” Woods says. “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

A television guy from Macon eases the tension by asking, “Have you been able to practice?”

“Not much,” Woods says. “Haven’t been able to get in the reps. And when I do get in the reps, sometimes I have that old wipey swing and sometimes my traj is perfect.”

Then the Masters member overseeing the Q&A says, “All right, one more question because Tiger has to go get more therapy.”

The final question goes to a serious TV guy from a national sports cable network. “Tiger,” the serious TV guy says, “will it absolutely break your heart, down to the core, down to the fibers, if you can’t play this Masters?”

Woods thinks for a few seconds and says, “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

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