Tiger Woods is missing, and that means a lot more is missing from the Masters as well. Some of the buzz, some of the attention will be absent, too, along with the millions of viewers who will skip the reverential CBS coverage rather than spend a long weekend with Adam Scott and Jason Day.
The industry pros and paid acolytes will tell you the game is a lot bigger than one guy, and there is some truth there, but no sport has ever been as dependent on the presence of one player for producing widespread interest as golf has become dependent on Woods.
And that's bad news, because he might be done.
You can take Rory McIlroy and Ricky Fowler, the last two guys who were going to blow up in popularity, and you can take whatever might still be in the tank of a 43-year-old Phil Mickelson and roll it all together, and it doesn't add up to a Tiger Woods when it comes to putting fannies on the couch.
Golf will enjoy another golden era eventually. It always does. But the recent run was really something, and it could have been topped off with the whole country following Woods' quest to break the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 major victories, and his lesser goal of topping the 82 PGA Tour wins of Sam Snead.
"It's tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future," Woods said in a statement on his website announcing the back surgery, which is causing him to miss the Masters for the first time since 1994. "There are a couple of records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine."
Woods will play golf again, and he'll probably get the four additional Tour wins he needs to surpass Snead. Getting the four majors it would take to tie Nicklaus and the five it would take to break his record is looking very unlikely, however.
It is an odd statistical quirk that right now, surgeries not withstanding, Woods and Nicklaus are tied for what they accomplished at this exact point of their careers. When Nicklaus turned 38, he had won 14 majors in 64 starts at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. Woods is 38 now, and he also has 14 majors wins in 64 starts.
Unless Woods has a remarkable recovery - there is no estimate yet on how much of this season he will miss - the ghost of Nicklaus past will move into the lead. Nicklaus won his 15th major, the British Open, at that age of 38; then added two more majors at the age of 40; and his final one, the 1986 Masters, at the age of 46.
It should be encouraging to Woods that this has been done before, but discouraging that Nicklaus was the only guy in modern golf to win more than two after turning 40. Since 1960, there have been 216 majors. Only 20 of those were won by golfers in their 40s.
"I still think he'll break my record," Nicklaus said last year. "But that said, he's still got to do it. He had better get going if he's going to."
That's been said for some time now as the golf world waits for Woods to shake off his various physical issues. He hasn't won a major since capturing the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. He had anterior cruciate ligament surgery following that tournament, and has since done battle with Achilles tendon problems in both legs and with a medial collateral ligament strain in 2011. The back ailment that developed in the last two years didn't prevent him from winning five Tour events in 2013, but the Farmers Insurance Open isn't the Masters.
"This is frustrating," Woods said of the surgery, "but it's something my doctors advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health."
Doubting Woods, who has a legendary workout ethic and a great reserve of athletic talent, is a dangerous business. It seems as if the years and the furious torque his swing requires have taken their toll, though.
There will be other springs and other seasons, but this one begins a little more quietly for the game of golf. If an azalea bursts to life on the edge of the woods and no one bothers to tune it and see it, is it still beautiful?