MASTERS '14: 17th hole gets a new look without the old Eisenhower Tree

Most players walking up the hill toward the 17th fairway at Augusta National can't help but notice the famous Eisenhower Tree: a loblolly pine, far enough from the tee to be a nuisance, sprawling at 65 feet and getting taller by the year.

What got Stewart Cink's attention was another tree behind it.

"Between 10 or 15 years ago, I noticed they planted a rather substantial new tree, about 20 yards further away from the Eisenhower Tree," Cink said. "I think they were planning on the Eisenhower tree being lost at some point, coming to the end of its life."

This was the year it did.

A miserable winter in the South produced an ice storm so severe that the aging Eisenhower Tree was damaged beyond repair. As the Masters prepares to kick off in Augusta, the biggest change may be what's no longer there.

In an announcement that read like an obituary, club chairman Billy Payne said the tree could not be saved and was removed.

"The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept," Payne said.

Worse yet, turns out that other tree Cink noticed years ago also fell victim to the ice storm and was taken down. The club has no immediate plans to replace it. Such decisions are not made hastily at Augusta National. The brother of former Masters champion Trevor Immelman posted a photo of the 17th without the tree, and the hole was not easily identified without the tree that gave it such definition.

The tree got its name from a certain Augusta National member — former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He hit the tree so often that during an Augusta National governors' meeting in 1956, Ike demanded that the tree be cut down immediately.

Clifford Roberts, the chairman and co-founder of the club, overruled the president and adjourned the meeting. Nearly 60 years later, Ike got his wish.

To understand the loss of the tree, consider St. Andrews without the Road Hole bunker or the TPC Sawgrass without the island green. Fenway Park without the Green Monster.

The 17th hole already was perhaps the dullest hole on a back nine that is famous for producing great theater at every other turn. It has ranked as the 10th most difficult hole at Augusta over the years — middle of the pack — as a 440-yard par 4 with an average score of 4.15.

Of all the holes on the back, the 17th probably has the fewest stories to tell.

The biggest moments came in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus hit pitching wedge into 12 feet, his final birdie in a closing round of 65 that brought him a sixth green jacket at age 46. Not far behind him that day, Greg Norman hit a beautiful bump-and-run from under the trees and just left of a bunker to 12 feet for his fourth straight birdie to tie for the lead. Just his luck, the Shark hit his shot on the 18th into the gallery and made bogey.

Gary Player stuffed a 9-iron into a foot on the 17th that secured his second Masters title in 1974. Charl Schwartzel made a 10-foot birdie that gave him the outright lead in 2011, the year he birdied the last four holes to win the Masters.

The Eisenhower Tree was a problem a generation ago, before equipment got better and golfers started to resemble actual athletes.

"It was like George Brett at third base for me," Curtis Strange said. "It caught more line drives from me than I'm allowed to admit."

The tree was tall enough to make a player think about his tee shot, and it jutted far enough out from the left side that the best shots were shaped from right-to-left. In recent years, the big hitters just smashed a tee shot over the tree.

Phil Mickelson never had a problem with it. He was contacted in February, after the sad news that the tree had come down, and was asked if he wanted to comment. He replied with a text message and a smiley-face emoticon, "Ask Jim Furyk."

Furyk, whose ball flight tends to be low and moves from left-to-right, handled the question with great diplomacy.

"It used to be not really a big deal to pop it over when I first started playing," Furyk said. "The tree was smaller, and the tee was a lot closer to it, so it was a lot harder to hit. Now I seem to hit that damn thing at least twice a year. It's a very difficult tee shot for me. So from the history of the game, I'll miss it. But my game sure won't miss it, put it that way."

The tree managed to play a role in Tiger Woods' injuries. It was a shot he had to play from under the Eisenhower in 2011 that aggravated injuries to his left Achilles' tendon and caused him to miss two majors. Woods won't be back this year to see the change because of surgery for a pinched nerve in his back, but he spoke for plenty of players this spring.

"I can't say some of the guys are going to miss it," he said. "But we are going to see a difference."