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Mother Nature and time have taken their toll at Augusta National

If you look closely around Augusta National, it’s easy to see where winter left its mark.

Behind the 10th green, the tops of several of the towering pines that frame the spot the way organ pipes can frame an altar are gone. Big branches have been cut away or were lost to the ice storm in a frozen February.

The great oaks behind the clubhouse are thinner at the top, like men of a certain age. The Eisenhower tree – or what’s left of it – is stashed away while a decision is made about what to do with its storm-shredded remains.

Even at the meticulously managed Augusta National, time and nature take their course.

You may have heard that Tiger Woods is missing, too.

“We miss Tiger,” Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said.

Phil Mickelson checked out prematurely as well, missing just his second Masters cut in 22 starts. He’s made 10 starts in this wraparound season and has yet to have a top-10 finish.

One of these days, perhaps sooner rather than later, we’ll have to get used to watching a game dominated by someone other than Tiger and Phil, the way we did when Arnie aged out and then Nicklaus got old. Someone has always come along, the way Lee Trevino and Tom Watson did, the way Greg Norman and Nick Faldo did.

For the better part of two decades, Tiger and Phil Mickelson have defined professional golf, their styles as different as their personalities, but their shared impact has been enhanced by each other.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson said earlier this week.

Mickelson is in his 20th season as a pro. Tiger, his 18th.

Now Mickelson deals with psoriatic arthritis and a back that gets cranky from time to time, though he said his health had nothing to do with the double and triple bogeys he made last week. Woods had already missed substantial time to knee, neck and an Achilles injury before undergoing back surgery that will sideline him for the better part of this season.

Mickelson will be 44 in June. Woods is 38.

They have children. They have changing priorities. They have a closing window on their opportunity to dominate the game.

“It’s not that they aren’t still playing at the same high level, but if you take away from your game five or 10 percent because of your family or your vacation or whatever, that’s massive because the younger guys are going to increase by five or 10 percent. The whole dynamic changes,” Frank Nobilo, the excellent Golf Channel analyst, said. “I think we are on the precipice.”

They are not finished, but they need to play to be at their best. Mickelson said as much after his opening 76 on Thursday. The lack of competitive reps – golfers now talk like football coaches – led to a pair of sloppy double bogeys.

The last great goal in Mickelson’s career is staring him in the face. He wants to win the U.S. Open to complete the career Grand Slam. The combination of history and the lineup of future U.S. Open sites suggests Mickelson’s best chance comes in two months at Pinehurst No. 2.

Wishes won’t get it done, though, and Mickelson knows it. His six runner-up finishes in the national championship are enduring reminders.

Perhaps we’ll see Woods again by the PGA Championship in August where he can re-start his stalled quest to scale Mount Nicklaus. By then, he will have gone more than six years since his last major championship victory.

His back surgery may be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Whether you want Woods to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship victories or not, it’s disappointing we haven’t gotten to see him fully healthy these last few years.

For most players, winning their first major championship is the toughest. In Tiger’s case, it’s his 15th.

Time passes. Things change.

Even at the Masters.