James Lawton: Which Tiger will come to tee?
Believers say it's the old Woods and he's ready to win again. Doubters say new swing guru will fail to paper over cracks
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 10.35am (local time), 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 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 new 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 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 focuses 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 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 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 the Tiger is concerned it is a dialogue which appears to have lost all currency.
Someone made a despairing attempt to reopen it when Woods came in from his last round of practice. He was asked to compare how it was two and a half years ago, when he hit a fire hydrant near his house and alerted the world to his crisis, and now when he came to his old hunting ground a restored favourite at the betting window if not in the hearts of the great public.
"Well," said the Tiger with a face that might have been covered by a mask, "I wasn't hitting the ball very good." He talked about difficulties in understanding how to get around the golf course, new uncertainties where before he knew precisely what had to be done, and there were times when he made Augusta National sound like the safe harbour sought out by a bedraggled mariner.
"As I have tried to explain before," he added, "coming to a golf course that we play each and every year certainly helps, and playing here for many years now – this is my 18th year – has really helped me over the years."
A questioner is cut short as though by a bullet. The questioner was just halfway through but no one had any doubt about how it would end. "Personally, as well, because obviously two years ago..." he was asking but the Tiger had heard enough, his eyes glazed and he said, quite mechanically: "Yeah, yeah, but it's also coming here to a golf course that I know. As I said, knowing how to play it and just the history behind this tournament just makes it so special."
There is no more, a now familiar drawbridge has fallen, and the Tiger is stalking the shadows again. He is in the hands of a talent that may have been restored – and the third guru of his career. Butch Harmon and Hank Haney came and went, and there isn't time or space to list the rancour that followed a combined total of 14 majors.
An instinct about whether the remarkable Foley gets to augment that total – before, maybe, writing his own account of how it is when the Tiger decides it is time for a new turn in the road and a fresh travel guide – is likely to be more pronounced come Sunday.
For today 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, surely, no other option but to wait for the Tiger.
Three to watch: Lawton's tips
Safe bet: Tiger Woods
There is a sense of someone apart, a man who has regained some clear idea of who he used to be – on the golf course, at least. Despite his sports obituary being prepared, the Tiger, with his first win in more than two dark years just a fortnight old, is once again extremely hard to bet against.
Each-way: Justin Rose
A British thoroughbred who is still searching for a classic win but is in good form under the tutelage of the coach of the moment, the Tiger's quirky Canadian guru, Sean Foley. Rose, who has multiple Tour victories over here, is available at the very tempting odds of 28-1 – surely excellent each-way value.
Outsider: Angel Cabrera
You might say the 42-year-old El Pato (The Duck) has had his glory but the Masters champion of 2009, who also has a US Open notch on his gunbelt, has the resilience which can upset all calculations. He came back from major surgery to stay in contention last year and he may offer a flash of value.
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