AUGUSTA, GA. - Right up to the start line, the opening strike from the first tee, the belief is insistent. It is that these last few days here we have been waiting for the dawn of potentially the greatest ever Masters.
It is, though, a catch-all projection that will be put into the sharpest perspective at 10.35 precisely this morning.
This is when Tiger Woods stands on the first tee. This is when we can put away the last lingering doubts about what lies at the core of all the expectation building here.
What we have been waiting for, of course, is Tiger — though which one may not be immediately apparent.
Yes, you have to believe there are two of them out there. There is the one who, we like to think, perhaps a little optimistically, will reach down again and find all of that old force and self-belief, all that rapier thrust on the green, which 15 years ago announced the kind of player golf had never seen before — a prodigy of powers that would previously have been considered impossible, unworldly.
The other one, we are asked to believe, is the concoction of a 37-year-old Canadian of obscure golfing antecedents, who once touted for work on holiday beaches in Florida and now shares his time as reputedly the hottest swing guru in all of the game with stints as a hip-hop DJ.
Maybe, just maybe, somewhere between the romantic and the bizarre is a man cast in one of the great sporting dramas over the next four days.
Even Tiger, perhaps unsurprisingly in a man who over the last two years has seen his image picked away to the point where his obsessive talk of golf’s technicalities is seen as much as anything a smokescreen for expanding emptiness, does not seem entirely sure about the true source of his possible re-creation.
One moment he talks of a long and sometimes dispiriting attempt at his own re-invention. The next, he doffs his cap to the impact that has inspired almost cultish following for the coach who has not only returned Woods to the winner’s column this new season but two other strong contenders here, the previously under-achieving American Hunter Mahan and Britain’s Justin Rose.
While deflecting any question touching on the bleakness that accompanied his exposure as a serial adulterer and the ensuing divorce, the visit to a sex addiction clinic as part of the two-year re-construction of his life, Tiger was happy to give Foley his enthusiastic backing on the eve of the tournament.
Indeed, Woods seemed for a moment to be playing himself not as a golf survivor of heroic proportions but a relatively obscure member of a self-help group led by a personal saviour.
He said, for example, “Sean is good at what he does. You know, I think if you look at the guys he works with, and we are all pretty good ball-strikers, that’s basically what he focusses on — on ball striking.
“Now Hunter, Rosey and myself are doing it day in and day out. We are hitting it pretty good.”
There is another testament from the fast-rising Mahan, who declares, “Sean is different. He can be borderline cocky and arrogant but he’s very smart and he works extremely hard at knowing the swing and the fundamentals and the biomechanics that go into it. You need to be focussed on the little things before you can go on and do big things. Have control and no control at the same time — to let things go.”
Buried in that tribute, maybe, is a phrase guaranteed to haunt Tiger at the dawn of his potential redemption: “have control and no control at the same time.”
That might still be an optional epitaph for the career which nose-dived so dramatically two years ago. He had sufficient control of the game which he had come to master to the point from where, give or take the ebb and surge of form, surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s mark of 18 majors had become close to formality.
Yet his private life was a vortex, a sure-fire destruction of that carefully built image.
Now there is the increasing sense of a man who is retreating behind the requirements of proficient golf, who will talk about the demands of the game, and all of its technical contours, almost by rote. But then we must not stray into any of the pitfalls and challenges of the wider life. We cannot talk about the healing of wounds and maybe the winning back of old horizons because as far as Tiger is concerned it is a dialogue which appears to have lost all currency.
Someone made a despairing attempt to re-open it when Woods came in from his last round of practice.
He was asked to compare how it was two years ago, when he hit a fire hydrant near his house and alerted the world to his crisis. “Well,” said Tiger with a face that might have been covered by a mask, “I wasnít hitting the ball very good.
“But as I have tried to explain before,” he added, “coming to a golf course that we play each and every year certainly helps.”
This morning we can only be sure that nothing will be more compelling than the sight of what might just prove to be the first day of the rest of a great golfing life — maybe the greatest the world has ever seen.
There are other dramas, of course, and they will be engaging enough. But meantime, there is not much of an option but to wait for Tiger.
— James Lawton writes for The Independent newspaper in the U.K.