By Frank Pingue
REUTERS - The Masters, with its famed azaleas, precisely manicured greens and towering trees is bigger than any one golfer, even Tiger Woods.
With the first major of the year three weeks away, Woods is still nursing an ailing back and his chances of teeing it up at Augusta National, where he is a four-time winner, do not look promising.
Even if Woods does play, his chances of making the halfway cut and playing on the weekend appear bleak.
But sports industry analysts say an absence of Woods from Augusta National will not have nearly as much of an impact as in 2014 when, as the world's top-ranked golfer, he missed the Masters for the first time.
"Everybody knows the course. It's just so gorgeous and there's so many famous holes there that people can't wait to see," Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, told Reuters.
"So as long as it's competitive and you've got a couple of big-name players in there on the weekend I think they are going to get solid ratings."
The absence of Woods from the Masters would once have been a ratings disaster but it appears the golf world, helped by some likeable players atop the world rankings and the continuing competitiveness of gallery favourite Phil Mickelson, has grown accustomed to him missing majors.
When Woods, as world number one, missed the 2014 Masters while recovering from back surgery, ratings for CBS's weekend coverage was 8.6 million viewers, the lowest since 1993 when 7.9 million viewers in the United States tuned in before Woods burst onto the scene.
Now ranked 734th in the world and a creaking shadow of his former self, Woods, who has missed the last four majors and six of the last 12, no longer strikes fear in fellow golfers but still has the potential to generate healthy ratings.
"The thing is he still bumps the ratings. If he's playing, and if he's in the final group on the weekend he definitely still makes a difference," said Dorfman.
"People are maybe not expecting him to win anymore but there is still an excitement and hope that he is going to do well on one side. One the other side it's 'gee let's watch and see what happened to this guy.' There's a curiosity about how far he's fallen off."
Woods made his return to the PGA Tour in January after an absence of 17 months and promptly missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open.
He shot an opening-round 77 a week later in Dubai before withdrawing due to a back spasm. He has since withdrawn from a handful of tournaments to focus on further rehabilitation on his back and his return date is uncertain.
But with or without Woods, the Masters offers something many golf fans simply cannot resist, a tradition-rich tournament played on the same course each year that signals the start of spring for most of the country.
"We're dealing with a unique property, tradition unlike any other. And while 10 years ago our audience would be surprised if Tiger was not playing I think given his history over the last year and a half that the audience would be pleasantly surprised if he does play," former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson told Reuters.
"The young professionals who have collectively taken Tiger's place -- Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, among others -- certainly have a following and they will bring a substantial audience to Augusta whether or not Tiger plays."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Both)