Every few years, in the world of sport, someone ascends to the most rarefied of all levels - the one at which it becomes news not when they win, but when they lose. It must have been like that in the early Fifties, when a tubby Italian called Alberto Ascari was stitching together nine Grand Prix wins in a row, a record not even Fangio, Clark or Senna could match. Or when the great RÃ©al Madrid side of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas won the first five European Cup finals, between 1956 and 1960. Or when Martina Navratilova dominated Wimbledon's Centre Court, winning nine ladies' singles titles in 13 years. The current Australian cricket team is in just such a run at present, having just completed nine consecutive victories, putting them four wins away from establishing an all-time record. And then there is Tiger Woods.
Sometime next Thursday morning, the lean, elegant figure of Tiger Woods will walk out of a colonial-style wooden clubhouse and down across a sloping lawn, under the shade of live-oak trees, as he makes his way to the first tee at the Augusta National course, the home of the US Masters, the first of the season's four major tournaments. "On the tee, Tiger Woods," the announcer will say, in a soft Georgia accent. And in a place where, until a very few years ago, he would not have been allowed to enter the clubhouse except in a servant's livery, Tiger Woods will receive the day's biggest send-off.
Three years ago, as the most talked-about 21-year-old in world sport, Woods stepped on to that tee for the first time as a professional. A couple of hours later, he passed the same spot, walking between the ninth and 10th tees. At that moment, the sense of anticlimax was almost palpable. He had completed the first nine holes in 40 strokes, a performance which, if repeated on the back nine and throughout the remainder of the tournament, would have given him a score of 320, or 32 over par. In fact, of course, he would have missed the halfway cut and would have been on the plane home to Florida in time for the weekend.
Unsurprisingly, Woods was frowning as he approached the 10th tee, which looks down over a fairway that resembles a waterfall, descending in a vertiginous rush to a hidden green. Not the most difficult hole in the world, perhaps, but certainly among the more spectacular, and a wonderful location for a coup de thÃ©Ã¢tre, particularly since it leads into the complex of spectacular and difficult holes known, for the vociferousness of the fans who crowd around them, as Amen Corner.
He had come into the tournament bearing an extraordinary weight of expectation, perhaps the greatest such burden endured by any sporting prodigy since the 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati made her ill-starred debut on the women's professional tennis tour in 1990. There were those who were looking for the young golfer to come a similar cropper. They were looking at the $40m five-year deal signed with Nike's Phil Knight the previous year, and the resulting series of "I'm Tiger Woods" TV ads, which hinted at arrogance. They were looking at an interview in an issue of GQ magazine, published on the eve of the Masters, in which an off-guard Woods told a few off-colour jokes. And they were preparing the stories about hubris and nemesis.
So, as he stood on the 10th tee under a dove-grey sky, watching a few blades of grass float away in the breeze and calculating the necessary deflection, Tiger Woods had a lot on his mind. From the bag held by his caddie, the mustachioed Fluff Cowan, Woods drew his two-iron, a conservative choice. A few seconds later, the ball was humming down the hill, skimming the turf and skipping off the rolling contours to leave him set up in a perfect position. Two hours later, he was back in the clubhouse, having conquered the back nine in just 30 strokes, which meant that he was two under par for the round. Three days later, he was standing under the live-oaks, facing the crowd and the cameras and celebrating victory, having shattered every record in the book.
It was one of the most enthralling debuts in sporting history, made all the sweeter for the watching world by the grace with which the victor accepted the spoils and the plaudits. Golf is a brainy game, and an unusually well-mannered one, and Tiger Woods did it proud in both dimensions. His father, Earl Woods, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Green Berets, and his mother, the former Kultida Punsawad, whom Earl had met when she was working as a secretary in the US Army office in Bangkok, had raised him to be both smart and polite as well as ambitious and self-confident. Earl's own words - "God gave me a gift, and He trusted me to take care of it" - may also have made the prodigy aware of his debt to others, not least to his father, who put a club in his hands before he could walk, and saw the boy shoot 48 over nine holes at the age of three as a prelude to a remarkable junior and amateur career.
Unfailingly patient and courteous with those wishing to enquire after the secrets of his success, at 21, Tiger was already capable of providing fascinating insights into every one of the hundreds of decisions he takes during a round of golf. And for a prodigy, he seemed unusually well-adjusted.
"If he's playing well," Jack Nicklaus said that weekend, "the golf-course becomes nothing." Nicklaus is the man with whom Woods is most frequently compared, since it is his record of 18 majors which the younger man is expected to overtake one day. Victory in the 1997 Masters did not, as some predicted, lead to an unprecedented clean sweep that season of the other three majors - the Open championship, the US Open and the US PGA. Far from it. And every time he failed, as he was bound to do, the sceptics were given further ammunition. But in the last year he has provided irrefutable evidence that all the most optimistic predictions were correct. His recent run of six consecutive PGA tour victories confirmed that Tiger Woods was indeed born to bestride his sport, pre-eminent among his contemporaries to a degree that forces them all to acknowledge, in their own ways, his unique qualities.
Not that it prevents some of them from trying to put it into a perspective that might allow them to carry on earning a living from the same game with a modicum of self-respect. "Everybody makes Tiger out to be bigger than golf," Hal Sutton said this week after beating Woods by a single stroke in a tight finish at the US Players Championship in Sawgrass, Florida. "Well, he's not bigger than golf, but he's the greatest player in the game right now, and for me to be able to beat him coming down the stretch is a feeling I can't describe."
Sutton, who is 42 years old and looks, in middle age, as though he might be more at home in the seat of a John Deere farm tractor than beaming from the cover of a glossy golf magazine, sees the phenomenon of Tiger Woods from the opposite end of the sporting psychograph. He, too, was once a prodigy. In his early twenties, he was beating everybody. But whereas Woods's career has followed a curve so smooth that it could have been designed by a marketing committee, Sutton's fell into a more erratic pattern. Personal and professional problems drew a shadow across his path. Nine winless years ended in 1998, and he was one of the principal figures in last autumn's tumultuous victory for the US team in the Ryder Cup at Brookline.
"Hal Sutton is a horse," the US team captain, Ben Crenshaw, said afterwards, with a note of awe in his voice, referring to qualities of endurance and loyalty.
The horse got the better of the tiger at Sawgrass last Monday, but you would not count on it happening too many times this year. For all Woods's flashing brilliance, the young man displays an almost supernatural consistence. So far this year, he has played in seven tournaments, won three of them, and finished second in three others. This sort of form makes it difficult to see who can ever dislodge him from the top rung of the US PGA Tour money-winners' list, the chart that lays bare the true ethos of a sport that measures success in dollars and cents.
But numbers - whether dollars and cents or marks on a scorecard - are one thing. The reason Tiger Woods is admired by so many and adored by many others around the world is that he brings a rare beauty to the game, embodying qualities which attract those who may not know one end of a putter from the other.
Even though he didn't win the tournament, the full splendour of his game was on show at Sawgrass. On Monday, at the long 16th, a camera perched high on a crane caught the glorious low arc of a five-iron approach shot stroked over the trees and to a spot, a few feet from the pin, almost 200 yards from where he had hit it. "No sport is as much improved for the spectator by television as golf," John Updike once wrote, and here was the proof, in an image of awe-inspiring majesty. Woods turned it into an eagle three, to accompany the trio of birdies he had registered there in the earlier rounds.
As the short putt dropped into the cup, Woods went into the act that evokes one of the very few kinds of criticism that accompany his progress nowadays. He leapt into the air, balling his left fist and pumping his arm in a gesture of self-motivation. It has become his trademark, but it may well have been borrowed from Boris Becker, who used it, one suspects, less to pump himself up at moments of crisis in big games than to indicate to his opponent that now, he was back in the groove and that henceforward, there could be only one winner.
By the standards of football and cricket, Woods's display of self-glorification is pretty mild stuff. But such things tend to set trends, and it has been copied and exaggerated by the prodigy of the next generation, Sergio Garcia, the young Spaniard who has been known to follow a shot down the fairway, leaping and dancing as he tracks its progress.
But if it really wants to abandon its standing as the exclusive preserve of CEOs and VPs, and to join the unwashed masses in Nikeland, golf will need a few more like Woods and Garcia. Fortunately, both of them have not just a great deal of natural charm but an observable measure of the sort of integrity without which the game could not exist.
In Woods's case, that integrity came into question last year, when he upset a lot of people by joining his compatriot David Duval in voicing the heretical opinion that players should be paid for competing in the Ryder Cup. With a $40m equipment contract in his pocket, people said, why should he need to be paid for playing for his country? Woods, however, was looking at the enormous profit being generated by the event, and wondering why none of it was going to the people who made it possible. And although he was certainly guilty of ignoring the competition's special status, it could be said in his defence that he was too young to realise what it might mean for a bunch of millionaires to play, just once every two years, for nothing more than the honour of something bigger than themselves.
Bigger than Tiger Woods? That's a concept which, in his early twenties, he could hardly be expected to comprehend. But as he progresses through his career, adding to his total of victories in the majors and smashing plenty of records as he goes, he will come to understand the true dimension of the game. And only when he recognises that it is, indeed, vastly bigger than any individual will he approach a realisation of the true magnitude of his own talent.