Even here in Augusta where the music of time has been re-arranged for so long and so hauntingly, the tyranny of the clock is threatening to sound like a thunderclap this evening. The fear, rated a 50-50 possibility, is that at some point during the dinner of past champions Arnold Palmer will announce that he has played his last Masters.
With Jack Nicklaus already out because of nagging back pain, the still muscular 72-year-old father of modern golf is agonising over the fact that as the days grow short the committee men of Augusta have lengthened by more than 300 yards a course which he once shaped to his every instinct.
So it goes, even for a titan of golf, you might say, but maybe there is another view that might legitimately be applied to the question of whether the radical course changes are a subtle response to new conditions in the game or an abject expression of a terror of the Tiger. Despite a raft of plausible arguments pitched against the prospect of dreadnought battles waged by driver and wedge, the latter explanation is still favoured by many observers. Certainly there is no shortage of circumstantial evidence. When Palmer was winning his four titles, and Nicklaus was on his way to six with a record-breaking effort that Tiger Woods surpassed only by one shot while apparently defining a new game, there was no rush to tear up the course, no anguish that the legacy of Bobby Jones had been buried beneath the dogwoods.
But since Woods came home that first time with such unanswerable poise, the phrase Tiger-proofing has become part of the language of golf. It is as though the impulse is to bestow chains rather than laurels.
The Augusta National chairman, Hootie Johnson, insists that the spectre that has been attacked is not of the Tiger relentlessly slaying the demons of a course filled with mystique but the monotony of power driving augmented by the wedge. Yet at the heart of his argument is an unbudgeable paradox. It is that the measures designed, deliberately or not, to curb the Tiger may have most damaged the old lion. As Palmer says, "To the young guys who hit the ball so far these days, the changes aren't going to make that much difference. When the tournament is on, it will look the same as it has always looked."
But much of the human fauna will have changed. Nicklaus is out through injury on this occasion, but next year – just five years after threatening to make time stand still with a thrilling charge into Amen Corner on the last day – his absence may be confirmed as permanent. He was certainly pensive after hearing Woods' announcement following a recent round on the wet course that the changes had increased the level of difficulty by two and a half shots. Eventually, Nicklaus said, "If they have made the course two shots harder for power players like Tiger, they have made it five shots harder for me."
But if Tom Watson fires a further warning on the possibility of a mass exodus of fabled names when he said: "If they put the tees right the way back, whatever the conditions, then my days of playing Augusta will be over." Nicklaus also said: "The Masters isn't about 60-year-olds like me, it is for the young guys." Perhaps not entirely, however. Maybe it is also about someone in his mid-forties, ransacking his memory and his body for their last instinct and strength, turning the game upside down as Nicklaus did when winning his sixth title in 1986. Maybe Augusta, of all places, should be about leaving the door ajar for the possibility of another miracle.
Of course it is a limited debate. If Nicklaus rebelled against the concept of "ceremonial golf" in 1998 with his extraordinary pursuit of a victory which would have invaded the senses of all of the game just as profoundly as that of Woods did in 1997, there is no doubt that the desperate struggles of such former champions as Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford have in recent years announced not triumph over, but submission to the years. The committee wrote to say that they should desist, and only the hopelessly sentimental could have voiced a protest.
There is also the truth that as Palmer this week wrestled over his decision to play or not to play one last time, he was re-visiting some very well-trodden ground. More than 20 years before he made those last unforgettable strides over St Andrews' bridge of sighs, he told me of his ambivalence over returning to The Open.
"All my golfing life I have prided myself on my ability to compete and the idea of coming over to Britain and not performing well rather haunts me. At whatever age you are, you have to set standards for yourself. I just don't know whether I am going to get on that plane. I love the tournament, of course, but I wonder if I will love it so much when I know I cannot win." But the years race on, and a man makes new allowances for himself, re-draws his goals, and for some time Palmer has gained comfort from the affection which has been poured upon him here during gritty attempts to beat the cut – the last, vaguely attainable objective of a man whose vast reserves of strength and ambition made a new game of golf as surely as did the natural brilliance of Woods five years ago.
Two years ago Palmer played with the heaviest of hearts in memory of his wife Winnie. He recalled how they scratched together the money for the petrol which carried them from Pennsylvania to the trailer park down near Augusta airport. Now he faces the reality that not just the world but also Augusta has moved on, and naturally it has made him wonder if there is a place left for him which can still yield a little self respect.
For the rest of us there can be only the hope that the re-drawing of a celebrated course was provoked for the best of reasons, for a little checking and balancing in the organisation of a great game. The other possibility is much less uplifting. It is that Augusta National has been changed not for the good of golf but for the offended pride of a committee made uneasy by the genius of Tiger Woods. If that might just be the case, the irony is crushing that the first curbing of the Tiger may prove to be the final blow for Arnold Palmer.Reuse content