It's happened before, they say. Ben Hogan dared to make the Masters his curtain-raiser in 1951 and proceeded to drive back down Magnolia Lane with a jacket as green as the leaves. But it hasn't happened before. Not like this. Win or lose, compete or miss cut, Tiger Woods' appearance at the Masters next week will be a first and, golf can only pray, a last.
Even before a registration sheet has been signed, the tale is already a jaw-dropping mass of precedent. Of all the one-off scenarios which have framed this saga, perhaps the one which best sums up the surreal quality of the narrative is the rumour which arrived from Augusta yesterday.
The officials are going to great lengths to ensure a certain porn star does not fulfil her threat of gaining access to the major. They evidently don't want the Masters to become The Mistress. Will they be prepared to circulate pictures of her to the security staff? Who could blame them if they did? After all, when Alister MacKenzie, the designer of the National course, declared it was his mission "to imitate the beauties of nature" at Augusta, the surgically enhanced profile of Ms Joslyn James was surely not what he had in mind.
Of course, many have and many will point the finger at the Georgian burghers for seeking to exert their infamous stranglehold on proceedings. That is the only reason Woods is playing there, agree the critics, the neutrals and even his friends. The great control freak wants the protection of the greatest control freaks. And as the media restrictions have emerged it has been increasingly hard to disagree.
Monday's press conference has taken on an absurd status. When Tiger Woods enters that interview room at 2pm it will seem like he is on trial. The journalists have been waiting for more than four months for their answers; except not every one of that lucky number who have secured their credentials – scandal sheets need never have applied – will be allowed into the inquisition. The room only holds 120 and no provision will be made to accommodate any more. Guess who decides who's in and who's out?
"Masters officials expect those desiring access to exceed capacity in the interview room," read a club statement issued on Wednesday. "They are asking credentialed outlets who wish to have a representative considered by the Media Committee to submit the name of one credentialed reporter via email."
Still, at least the outcasts can watch on TV, as their colleagues try to negotiate the predicted "golf-only" limitations. Yet they had better not wait for the evening rerun. While the club will provide the live stream free of charge, the maximum length of clips used in the following 48 hours is three minutes. After that time period, no section of the recording can be used without the permission of Augusta. Any television or radio stations who do want access to the conference have been instructed to sign a contract acknowledging the stipulations.
Why the videotapes which must self-destruct after two days? Well, what if Tiger says something incriminating, or just plain stupid. It would appear on the Late Show with David Letterman in perpetuity. Not now it won't. It might not be much of a safety net, but if you're crash-landing any break is welcome.
Then there comes the live action itself. The Independent has learnt Woods will tee off in his first round at approximately 2pm in one of the day's final groupings. Augusta have bent their rules to let their broadcasting "partners" screen Woods' drive down the opening hole. But as soon as he steps off the first tee they will be forced to cut away until the coverage proper begins. It's funny, the world could watch a man hitting a golf ball on the Moon, but when it comes to Tiger's comeback it won't be able to see him hitting on the second, third, fourth and fifth holes. Perverse? As it happens, ESPN, the BBC and Co were pleased the green jackets made any concession at all.
Obviously, this has all been heaven-sent for Augusta's more vociferous critics. And they don't come any more vociferous than Martha Burk, the feminist who in 2003 led a highly publicised protest against the club's male-only membership. In an interview with the New York Daily News this week, Burk declared that Woods and Augusta deserve each other. "I think this is a safe haven for him," she said. "They're all chauvinists themselves. It's a perfect fit. He'll be welcomed. These people have a fundamental disregard for women. What produced Tiger Woods as we now know him goes back a long way. He played a lot of golf at a Houston club, Lochinvar, that didn't let women in.
"Inside the grounds at the Masters, I don't think there will be any heckling or protests," she added. "The people who go there are such golf devotees, they feel like kissing the ground when they get inside the gate. And if the media pursues the issue... it's such a dictatorship, officials are completely capable of barring any reporter from the tournament who brings it up at the pre-tournament interview."
The pervading perception is of Augusta doing all in its powers to make it as comfortable as possible for Woods. That isn't strictly true. The word is Woods enquired about the chances of using one of the cabins on the grounds for the duration of the event. The response came back negative. He will have to re-enter the human race at night time, if only behind blacked-out windows.
Yet when Woods is inside he will know those gates cannot hold back the avalanche of dirt, nor of the accompanying disgust. A 14-page exposé which has hit the newsstands this week has been as stunning because of its masthead as it has been for its graphic content. Vanity Fair is a respected magazine and its interviews with four of his mistresses have given the more damning allegations of the Woods affairs so much more substance. The demarcation line between his private and professional lives has long been blurred, but now there is a palpable bridging with the accusations of members of his management team as enablers and disposers. With the televised statements, five-minute interviews and rehab reports, there was supposed to a PR clean-up operation in place. In truth, the mess is now more disorderly than ever.
Will any of this matter to the golfer, to his mission to win a 15th major in the most unlikely circumstances yet? It is the question obsessing the range. His fellow pros accept the Masters will be all about him – but then, they're pretty used to that. "He would have taken the spotlight anyway, whether he'd had a break or not, he always does," said Lee Westwood. "Journalists have asked me how the other players will be affected by it. But I really don't think there will be any issues for us. The only issues are for Tiger. Whether he is ready or not, whether he can handle the media spotlight. Although I would imagine the press will be handcuffed as to what they will be allowed to ask him."
Westwood ran into Woods while practising at Augusta on Monday, but is hardly unique in that respect. In the last two weeks Woods has spent at least four days of practice at the National – another extraordinary and unprecedented move on his behalf – and among others this week has encountered Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. All have found him in feverish preparation, trying to make up for the loss of match-fitness with Augusta-fitness. Will it be enough?
Westwood is among the many doubters. "Top 10 would be a success for him in my eyes," said the world No 4. "Not so much because of all the other stuff but just because he hasn't hit a competitive shot since November. It will be very difficult to go straight into what is about the toughest test of the year. Saying that, I wouldn't put anything past him. History tells you not to. I had first-hand experience of that at Torrey Pines."
Yes, Westwood was alongside Woods when he won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg. It was never supposed to get any more spectacular than that, never supposed to drag plausibility so close to the land of make-believe again. But here golf is well into a plotline unimagined by even the sickest fantasist. It could all end in farce, in rowdy expulsion, in media mutiny. But it could also end in redemptive glory. Most believe a line needs to drawn. But where? Under his greatness or through his myth? Or perhaps both? The questions pile up.
How Hogan did it: Winning Masters on your return
Ben Hogan nearly died when he was involved in a head-on crash with a Greyhound bus on 2 February 1949. He returned the next year and with his damaged leg bound in bandages won the US Open. However, because of circulatory problems, he then took nine months off before reappearing at the Masters. Hogan turned up at Augusta 10 days early, hit hundreds of balls and won his first Green Jacket by two strokes. It was a miraculous performance, although golf historians do suggest he played an exhibition match in Miami in the build-up to Augusta. Two years later, Hogan again elected to go straight to the Masters. Again, he prevailed. That year he won five of the six events he entered, including his one and only Open Championship at Carnoustie.Reuse content