FANS say the old Tiger is back but doubts linger over whether he can add another Major title
Right up to the start line, the opening strike from the first tee, the belief is insistent. It is that, these past 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 10.35am (3.35pm Irish time), precisely, today.
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 the 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 that 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 the 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, as a smokescreen for expanding emptiness, does not seem entirely sure about the true source of his possible recreation.
One moment he talks of a long and sometimes dispiriting attempt at his own reinvention. The next, he doffs his cap to the impact that has inspired almost cultish following for the coach – Sean Foley – who has not only returned Woods to the winners' column this season but also has 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, and the visit to a sex addiction clinic as part of a two-year reconstruction of his life, the Tiger was happy to give Foley his 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 an obscure member of a self-help group led by a personal saviour.
He said, for example: “Sean is good at what he does. If you look at the guys he works with, and we are all pretty good ball-strikers, that's what he focuses on – on ball striking. Now Hunter, Rosey and myself are doing it day in, 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 focused 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 the 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 nosedived 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 a formality. Yet his private life was a vortex, a 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 the Tiger is concerned, it is a dialogue which appears to have lost all currency.