AUGUSTA - It's as if the most famous tree in sports never existed. There is no hole, no marker.
No more Eisenhower Tree, that 65-foot loblolly pine beloved by Augusta National Golf Club patrons and cursed by the world's greatest golfers. It fell apart in a February ice storm. What was once a formidable impediment approximately 210 yards down the left side off the 17th tee - a tree that led to a Tiger Woods injury and impacted many Masters - is now just another green patch of immaculately kept fairway.
There were plenty of gawkers Wednesday, all of them analyzing empty space during a practice round for the 78th Masters tournament set to begin Thursday morning.
Augusta National members are watching, too.
"We do not yet have a definitive plan as to what, if anything, we will do with the 17th hole beyond this year's tournament," Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday during his annual State of the Masters address. "We are closely examining play and scoring on the hole this week, and will make a decision after careful observation and consideration."
In other words, probably no giant windmill.
Jack Nicklaus likes the idea of a bunker.
The Eisenhower Tree was more than 100 years old. It might be too iconic to replace.
Ike might be smiling
Go ahead, name another sports tree that compares.
The Stanford University tree mascot? Not even close.
Former Clemson and NBA basketball star Tree Rollins? Tall, yes. But his career wasn't nearly as long.
The Eisenhower Tree was named for the 34th U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, an early Augusta National member so frustrated by the 17th hole that he asked to have the tree removed. Ike was rebuffed by co-founder Clifford Roberts.
Payne, bone fishing in the Bahamas at the time of the ice storm, rushed back to Augusta to assess the damage - not just to the Eisenhower Tree but to hundreds of trees.
The famed Augusta National grounds staff, initially hoping to save the Eisenhower Tree, consulted with arborists and botanists.
"From all over the country, frankly," Payne said.
Many players are glad for a big, if temporary, break on 17th hole, a par 4 presently 440 yards long.
Jim Furyk: "I hit that darned thing a lot."
Steve Stricker: "I'm surprised that there isn't a bigger (tree) in place there already, to tell you the truth."
As the Eisenhower Tree grew, it presented more of a challenge.
Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner, had a "great chance" at the 2007 Masters - before he whacked a tee shot off the tree and double-bogeyed.
"It's definitely a little wider," Rose said of a 40-yard gap down the right side off No. 17 that was once less than 25 yards. "But it's still a chute. There's no room for error."
Woods had a notable third-round disaster under the Eisenhower Tree in 2011. Bending down to awkwardly strike a ball under the tree, he reinjured his left knee and stretched an Achilles tendon. Woods played the next day but while recovering would miss the 2011 U.S. Open and British Open.
The tree that brought Tiger and many other players to their knees rests in an undisclosed off-site storage facility, an Augusta National spokesman said. The club is so renowned for its landscaping, one journalist wondered why the grounds crew wasn't able to protect the tree during the ice storm.
Yes, all 65 feet of it with some sort of secret cover they keep in the magical azalea shed.
"I don't think that was considered," Payne said.
Others wondered if the tree was carefully uprooted.
Is it . alive?
No, confirmed dead.
Before deciding what to do with the remains, Payne said "many important constituencies" will be considered.
"The Eisenhower Library, the golf world, our own Eisenhower Cabin, the 17th hole itself, all of our Past Champions and, of course, the Augusta National Golf Club," Payne said. "Once again, we will take our time, and hopefully we will get it right."
This week, Jim Furyk and friends will just play through.
"The history of the tree will be missed and there's a lot of lore there," Furyk said. "But my game definitely won't miss it that much, put it that way."
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
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