The azaleas are blooming, the pollen is swirling, and green sport coats are about to be in vogue for one whole week. Yet something is missing at this dawning of spring.

Tiger Woods.

Woods announced Friday that he won’t play in the first major of the year, but that’s beside the point. Even if he played, it’s not like he’d be a Masters contender, not with a broken-down body that has kept him out of competition for more than seven months. It’s best that he just stay away, unless he wants to take a crack at the ceremonial opening tee shot. Now that Arnold Palmer has bowed out, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player need someone to complete their threesome.

All kidding aside, what’s missing is something that’s never coming back.

Tiger in his prime.

While there’s no question the future of the game is in good hands with Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, none of those young guns is likely to match – or even come close – to what Woods did at the height of his dominance.

Spieth gave it a run last year, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open, just missing out on a playoff at the British Open, and taking the runner-up spot at the PGA Championship.

Now let’s see if the young Texan can keep it going for another decade or so.

“It’s hard to explain to Jordan coming out now how (Woods) was just so much better than everyone,” said Adam Scott, a Masters champion himself. “We’re all quick to forget that sometimes.”

Indeed, with more and more time to reflect on Woods’ legacy – after all, he hasn’t won a major since his one-legged conquest of the 2008 U.S. Open – the enormity of his accomplishments makes it feel as though they were dropped on us from another world, transforming this lazy, country-club game into something hip, thrilling. Must-see TV.

Millions of people who had never watched a golf tournament tuned in every time Woods was on the course. As the ratings can attest, many of them didn’t stick around once he faded away.

Even now the breathless speculation about his status for the Masters shows just how much cachet he still carries.

Woods still believes he can win major titles. He hasn’t given up on Nicklaus’ Holy Grail of records, those 18 major championships.

“I am starting to feel a lot better,” Woods wrote on his Web site about a month ago, one of the most recent dispatches on the state of his game. “While there is no timetable on my return to competitive golf, I want to play this game at the highest level again.”

Even Nicklaus, who’s made it clear he likes the view from the top just fine, wishes Woods had a few more good years in him, to at least make it a fair fight.

“I’ve told Tiger many times … nobody wants their records to be broken, but I don’t want you not to have the ability to have that opportunity by your health,” Nicklaus said.

From his first major title at the Masters in 1997, when he shot a record 18-under score at age 21, to that U.S. Open triumph at Torrey Pines eight years ago, Woods played the game better than anyone before him and, we’re willing to wager, anyone to come in several more lifetimes.

Over the course of 46 majors, he won 14 times and was runner-up on five other occasions. He had six more finishes inside the top five, four more where he was in the top 10. Only nine times did he finish outside the top 20 during that stunning stretch. He missed one cut, in 2006 at the U.S. Open shortly after the death of his father.

Woods bounced back from that heartache to win four of the next eight majors.

Then his body betrayed him.

First he had knee surgery, and now he’s trying to come back from a third surgery on his wobbly back.

But we can always fall back on those memories from the first 16 months of the last decade, when Woods not only romped to four straight major titles – the Tiger Slam – he thoroughly demolished anyone who got in his way.

His 15-stroke win in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach will forever be the standard for what golf can be at its closest point to perfection.

“He inspired all of us to play golf like he did,” Scott said. “I feel so fortunate to have played practice rounds with Tiger at majors in the years 2000, 2001, and really see up close what is the best golf I’ve ever seen. Just head and shoulders above the rest.”

That’s what we’ll miss this week at the Masters.

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