AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If it is rare for a member of Augusta National to grant an interview on any subject related to golf -- better to stay clear of the overlords' wrath, you know -- Lynn Swann is not your average member, and Tiger Woods is not your average subject.
Swann was a Hall of Fame piece of the old Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty, and Woods was/is a dynasty all his own. So as the former wide receiver cut a chiseled, playing-weight figure inside his green jacket near the clubhouse oak, and waited for Bubba Watson to complete his second Masters victory, he was asked if golf needed Woods as much as the TV ratings suggested it did.
A member since 2009, the 62-year-old Swann immediately threw a hard block for his Augusta teammates.
"I think people like to see great play," he said, "And I think people watching the Masters had to be extremely happy with the performance Bubba put in."
He also wanted to say something about the 20-year-old runner-up in Watson's group, and about the feeling he got when he attended his first Masters in 1997, the year a 21-year-old Woods turned the sport on its head.
"I had the sense of seeing something different happening in golf, as young as Tiger was," Swann said.
"When you're young ... people get a sense that anything is possible. And I think people believe Jordan Spieth provided that look into the future this week, and that's exciting to them."
No question about it. Spieth has that certain eye of the Tiger, and he was only a handful of shots away from making history at Augusta National. But even if he has the game and the nerve to win multiple majors, Spieth isn't going to be the next Tiger for this simple reason:
There isn't going to be a next Tiger.
That's why golf needs to squeeze every ounce of greatness out of him before his body cries uncle for good. Hard-core fans of the sport don't need him; they'd watch a five-hole, Jonas Blixt-John Senden playoff if it came down to it.
But the sports fan more consumed by LeBron James' quest for a three-peat and Derek Jeter's farewell tour? The sports fan who watches the four majors and maybe the Ryder Cup?
That guy or gal needs Woods in the field to pay attention.
Tiger doesn't have to win the Masters, which he hasn't taken since 2005, or even lose in some heartbreaking way. He just has to be there, somewhere, lending his presence to a game that can't get by on the occasional Phil Mickelson miracle at Muirfield.
Yes, golf still has plenty going for it without Woods, out indefinitely after his back surgery. Watson's two Masters titles make him a legitimate star, and Spieth has arrived as a generational counterpart to Rory McIlroy.
But come on.
ESPN's first-round ratings were down 800,000 viewers from last year, and its second-round ratings were down 1.7 million viewers. It didn't get better over the weekend when CBS' ratings dropped to its lowest levels since Bernhard Langer's 1993 Masters win. Those fans who disappeared last week didn't just suddenly decide to take up tennis.
"I think everybody wants to see the best of the best play," Swann agreed. "When Michael Jordan was out or Kobe [Bryant] was hurt, people wanted them back, and it's the same with Tiger. Fans would much rather see someone surpassed by a greater player rather than defeated by injury."
Six years ago at the U.S. Open, Tiger won his 14th and most recent major on one leg. Now beneath his video-game muscles, he appears to be 38 going on 49, his series of injuries compromising his goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 big ones.
Only that chase isn't nearly as pressing as the sport's desire for a healthy Woods to return much sooner than later. If Tiger is out for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst (where he's contended), the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool (where he won in 2006), and the PGA Championship at Valhalla (where he won in 2000), golf will have a longer summer than the Marlins and the Mets.
The players know it too. Here's a brief review of their pre-tournament thoughts on a Masters without the master who earned four green jackets:
Adam Scott: "It's a huge loss."
Mickelson: "It's awkward to not have him here ... He's been the one that's really propelled and driven the bus because he's brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest."
Justin Rose: "Win, lose or draw, he's a very big draw for the game. People are eager to see how he's going to chase down Jack Nicklaus in every major championship."
McIlroy: "Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere. ... I think people will miss him at the start of the week, but by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, there's going to be a worthy winner and it will produce a lot of excitement."
Even golf's most ardent defenders would have to concede that Woods' absence tempered the excitement and anticipation from Monday through Friday. As far as the weekend goes, and Sunday's back nine, and all those forecasts (including one made here) that the drama and iconic setting of the Masters would temporarily make the whole Woods thing moot, well, you be the judge.
Watson was a worthy champion, again, but Spieth couldn't push him to the max. It wasn't the worst Masters ever, but it sure could've used the narrative -- if only in the early rounds -- of a Tiger desperate to end his drought and to stick it to those who demanded last year that he fall on his wedge and withdraw after the rules fiasco at the 15th.
Woods' back wouldn't cooperate last week, and nobody truly knows when it will. "I know how hard it is to come back from injuries," Swann said, "and how badly you don't want to be injured.
"People have said that, long term, Tiger's power and the way he attacks the ball would create some issues down the road. ... We're all just waiting and hoping he comes back, and then let's see what he brings to the table."
In the end, nobody ever brought more to golf's table than Tiger Woods. That's why the guardians of the game should send him this one message in the coming weeks, again and again and again:
Get well soon.