Just when Tiger Woods believed he was winning over Augusta so the most powerful man at the Masters delivered a stinging rebuke. So damning was the prepared statement of Billy Payne it will surely still be ringing loud when the world No 1 hits his first competitive shot in five months this afternoon.
"He forgot to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility," said the Augusta chairman. "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we sought for our children. Certainly, he will never again be measured only by his performance against par but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
This was the last thing Woods wanted or needed before the most pressurised round of his career. If he didn't know before that he was being judged as human being as well as golfer then he does now. There were rumours that Augusta were not pleased with Woods for making this his season's curtain-raiser and for somehow hijacking the tournament. Now it's clear these green-jacketed moralists are not best pleased with him on a number of counts. "I hope he can come to understand that life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people," said Payne, sounding less like a sports official and more like a preacher. "We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life in a positive and constructive manner, but this time will be a significant difference from the past. This year it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances."
Poor Tiger. There he was hoping he could be a man playing a golf course. But no, he must prove the redemptive powers of mankind. An absurd spectacle just got more absurd. From the Bible-bashers to the bookmaker charts.
Certainly, a clear favourite has never gone so unfancied. The local Augusta news paper yesterday polled more than 50 golf writers, asking who would win the Masters. Tiger Woods received two votes. The same as the rookie Dustin Johnson.
It is not just the supposed experts abandoning the returning world No 1, either. Woods began the week as a 3-1 shot. At 1.42pm today, local time, he will tee it up at 6-1. That happens to be the highest price he has started a major since his very first as a pro here 13 years ago. On that occasion Woods was 16-1. He won by 12 strokes.
That won't happen over the next four days. Not if the overwhelming majority of the punters and scribes are to be believed. While the odds about a Woods win have doubled, the odds about him missing the cut have halved. Indeed, he is rated more likely to miss just the third major cut of his professional career than he is to don a fifth Green Jacket.
Ridiculous? Realistic? Or somewhere in between? Not much about Woods has made sense since that crash outside his home on 27 November last year. In the five months that have led to this, his first event of the year, his reputation has been destroyed, his aura has been obliterated. The most revered sportsman on the planet has become the most ridiculed man on the planet. While once there was nothing but certainty, now there is a mass of doubt. That halo has been replaced by a huge question mark.
That's what makes this week not only the most awaited tournament in the long history of big-time golf, but also the most fascinating. The hurdles between Woods and a 15th major stretch out further and in far more imposing fashion than the 18 holes of the Augusta National. If the physical challenge of returning from such a long absence in such a testing arena seems insurmountable then so too does the mental trial.
Yet if only the insecurity started and stopped there. Woods is not even in the position of falling back on his faithful swing. In his three practice rounds in front of the public, Woods has been as erratic with his clubs as he has been compliant with his gestures. He has tipped his hat, performed high fives and smiled throughout. Mr Inscrutable has become Mr Accessible and the crowd have lapped it up. But there have been too many winces when he has wielded his clubs. As he has headed for the trees, he has looked nothing like a Comeback King in waiting. And that is before the destructive effect of the rust sets in.
"I think it will be a success for him if he makes the top 10," is the way Lee Westwood sees it. "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."
"But it's Augusta," comes the cry. "This place is made for him." Maybe once it was. Since the radical course alterations, Woods has won one Masters in the last seven stagings. He has not come close the last two years. Westwood, Ernie Els, Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington should ensure he doesn't again. A personal fancy is for the Big Easy finally to don a Green Jacket. Els has won the two biggest strokeplay tournaments of the year so far and is the game's form player. Victory is his only ambition. For Woods it is not nearly as simple as all that. That much has been made excruciatingly obvious by Chairman Payne.
Five who can master Augusta: The front-runners for the Green Jacket
lee westwood (Odds: 18/1)
The world No 4 is the most consistent player in the world. Now has the short game to tackle Augusta. Britain's best hope of a first major in 11 years.
Ernie Els (16/1)
Won in Miami and then in Bay Hill and arrives here looking like the Ernie of old. Has come so close before. This is the win he craves above all others.
Padraig Harrington (20/1)
Is back in the form which won him three majors in 2007 and 2008 and has that mad look in his eyes again. If he's in contention Sunday afternoon, he wins.
Steve Stricker (30/1)
The No 2 on the rankings is not the only player who struggles to regard himself as the second-best player in the world. But his credentials should not be underestimated.
Ian Poulter (28/1; William Hill)
There is nobody more confident in the field and nobody better prepared. The World Match Play title has given him the status his swagger demanded. He senses the progress will not end there.
James CorriganReuse content