The Masters is sometimes the only professional tournament many casual golf fans watch each year. All the others — the U.S. Open, Ryder Cup, etc. — don't matter.

It's kind of like Wimbledon in tennis.

For that reason, they see Tiger Woods' absence from Augusta National this week as discouraging and a blow to the event. They clamor for when Woods can regain his health and once again be the star who in 1997 burst on the scene with a stunning 12-stroke victory at the Masters.

Well, folks, that guy is never coming back.

But give golf a chance. There are more young stars than ever on the scene. There weren't this many when the 21-year-old Woods announced his arrival 20 years ago at Augusta.

This weekend's Masters (2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday on CBS) could be one of the most competitive in history. The 20-something crowd of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Jon Rahm is pretty much fearless.

Add in veterans such as Justin Rose, Fred Couples, Ernie Els and Adam Scott, all major champions, and this could be an all-time great Masters. Too bad No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson took a wrong step and isn't playing.

Don't count out Phil Mickelson, either. He's the same age (46) as Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear won the Masters in 1986 and much more competitive at the same stage.

Woods brought a ton of new fans to golf, especially minorities who didn't think they had a spot in the sport. The way he seemed to hypnotize his competitors into submission, much like Nicklaus did for 20 years, was truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, Woods' injury-wracked body has brought his career to a sudden halt. It appears highly unlikely he'll ever be a contender again, especially with the power the younger guys are bringing.

Tune into the Masters and you'll see just that. 

IndyCar Series: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (NBCSN, 3 p.m. Sunday): Those who prefer speed over the quiet of golf can also probably catch a glimpse of a movie star or two checking out the action as drivers cruise through the streets of Long Beach.

MLB: Dodgers at Cubs (ESPN, 7 p.m. Monday): The raising of the World Series banner is sure to spark quite a celebration during home opener at Wrigley Field. It's not like anyone who was at the last banner ceremony will be there.

NBA: Nets at Bulls (WAOE, 7 p.m. Wednesday): Chicago is right on the playoff bubble and may need to win this regular-season finale to grab the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. Hold your excitement.

Contact Jim Benson at jbenson@pantagraph.com.

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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