By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods is missing the Masters for the first time in 20 years, but the 38-year-old American still commands attention at Augusta National, site of the year's first major championship.
The four-time Masters winner, stuck on 14 majors for the last six years in his quest to surpass the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus, is sidelined after undergoing surgery for a pinched nerve in his back.
"We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said in his State of the Masters news conference on Wednesday. "He is always a threat to make a run and do well and win here at Augusta National."
Woods, number two on the all-time majors list, had played in every Masters since his first appearance as U.S. Amateur champion as a 19-year-old in 1995.
Reigning champion Adam Scott of Australia said Woods would be sorely missed at the 78th edition of the stately event conceived by the legendary Bobby Jones.
"It's a big loss for the tournament any time a world number one is not going to play. It's a huge loss," said Scott, who became the first Australian to win the Masters after a thrilling sudden-death playoff duel against Argentina's Angel Cabrera.
"But, as every year here, this event produces something special no matter what. It just has a way of doing it. It's not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event anyway."
Woods's longtime rival Phil Mickelson said it would feel strange not having Tiger to gun for.
"It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it?" said three-time Masters winner Mickelson, who last year notched his fifth major title by winning the British Open.
"He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It's awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon.
"As much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win," added the big lefthander.
Rory McIlroy, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman rated a co-favorite with Scott for this year's green jacket, said the absence of Woods would be felt right from the start.
"Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere," said two-time major winner McIlroy, considered by some the heir apparent to Woods as the dominant player of his generation.
"You know where he is on the course just by the crowd and the gallery that follows him.
"I think people will miss him at the start of the week but by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, there's going to be a worthy winner and it will produce a lot of excitement."
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose was disappointed not to have Woods in the field for the tournament that kicks off the major championship season.
"It's a shame for the tournament," said England's Rose. "I know that people are very excited to watch him play golf. Win, lose or draw, he's a very big draw for the game.
"People are eager to see how he's going to chase down Jack Nicklaus in every major championship. There's a countdown to that. Yeah, he'll definitely be missed this week. Obviously from a TV and a fan perspective, absolutely."
Masters chief Payne was confident the tournament would not suffer.
"This is the Masters," said Payne. "This is what we hope is the best golf tournament in the world, one of the greatest sporting events, and I think we will have a very impressive audience and have another great champion to crown this year."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)