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The 2014 Masters: 5 storylines to consider

Spring officially arrives in many sports fans’ eyes when the Masters begins next week in Augusta, Ga. Here are five storylines to consider:

TIGER’S ABSENCE: The Masters will be without four-time champion Tiger Woods for the first time since 1994 after he recently underwent surgery to fix a pinched nerve in his back. It’s the first time Woods, the world No. 1, has missed the tournament. Although the Masters is bigger than any one player, Woods’ absence will be felt.

PHIL’S BACK IS OK: Phil Mickelson, who has had injury problems of his own, is playing this weekend at the Houston Open. He said he’s feeling better after withdrawing last week from the Texas Open in San Antonio with a strained back. Mickelson said it’s important for him to play competitively the week before the Masters, and he also found time earlier this week to play nine practice holds at Augusta. He’s going after his fourth green jacket.

NEW KIDS: This year’s Masters features 23 players who are making their Augusta debuts. Jordan Spieth is probably the best-known of the bunch, a young talent who won last year’s John Deere Classic and was immediately jetted over to the British Open. Patrick Reed is a two-time winner this season. Harris English won last year’s St. Jude Classic and this year’s OHL Classic in Mexico. Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is another one to look out for: he very nearly won the WGC Match Play Championships, falling to Jason Day on the 23rd hole. Kevin Stadler is in the field with his dad, 1982 champ Craig. It’s the first time and father and son have played in the Masters. Derek Ernst, who won last year’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, is also playing in his first Masters.

A LOST LANDMARK: Augusta National’s 17th hole will have a different look after the legendary “Eisenhower Tree” was removed when it sustained severe damage in a recent ice storm. The tree was named so because of the disdain former President Dwight Eisenhower felt for it (he asked to have it removed because he often hit the tree with his drives). The tree’s absence will change the nature of the par-4 hole, opening up the left side of the fairway.

THE WINNER: The hunch here is Rory McIlroy, who’s never finished higher than 15th at Augusta. He’s had all kinds of problems in 2013 related to new equipment and even a toothache. But he knows how to win majors (the ’12 PGA, the ’11 U.S. Open). He’s been close a couple of times this season, including a second-place finish at the Honda Open.