James Lawton: Mouth-watering Masters in prospect but probably not greatest of all-time
If the course had been any more ravishing in the warm spring sunshine, if it had given us any more of the colour and the perfume of the American south, we might have been persuaded there was quite a good chance of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara strolling through the dogwoods.
As it is, though, the 76th US Masters is for the moment at least suggesting not so much Gone with the Wind as quite a serious case of lost perspective.
Already the leading American magazine Sports Illustrated has announced that last year's 75th edition – when Rory McIlroy was placed on a spit, the Tiger made a menacing charge and Charl Schwartzel, an amiable and extremely understated farmer from the high veldt, came home with an unprecedented run of birdies on the last four holes – was the greatest Masters of all.
If that sounds like a statement to bring on a little joust with reality, so far it has hardly been the effect.
Indeed, some here are claiming that the one that starts on Thursday morning, and will be launched appropriately by the ceremonial first shot-makers Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, will be even better. Heaven knows it has extraordinary potential, with the Tiger and the closest approach to the precocious genius he represented when he emerged 15 years ago, McIlroy, at its competitive heart and with at least six other heavyweight contenders all in dazzling shape at the start of practice, but, really, the greatest ever?
One sure-fire caution against such a projection will be the appearance of Nicklaus, Player and Palmer, who for a whole generation came to be seen as the three horsemen of golfing apocalypse. All three were ultimate competitors, all of them brought off victories here which anyone who saw them knew instantly would never die.
As it happens, one of those amazing statements of will came precisely 50 years ago – a span enduring enough to remind us of the folly of forgetting what happened yesterday even as we predict what might occur tomorrow – or in this case on Thursday morning.
The 26th Masters was great not because of the beauty of Palmer's play. At times it was anything but that. It was a typical amalgam of trial and error, endless pugnacity and, as always, more than a little brute strength.
He shot a 75 to reach a Monday play-off with Dow Finsterwald and Player and, despite the vigour of his stride, appeared to be a dead man walking before holing a 45ft birdie at 16 and then leaving an 8-iron at 12ft for a birdie on 17th. In the play-off he found himself floundering again, he was trailing by three shots when he walked on to the 10th tee.
He then swept to four straight birdies for a four-shot lead. It was his third Green Jacket in five years. It is one of a few things to think about as the current frenzy moves up a notch each day.
According to Sports Illustrated, last year's Master's was the greatest because it gave us the full sweep of the game's emotions: McIlroy's broken spirit, revived so astonishingly a few months later, Tiger's thwarted fight for re-instatement as arguably the most feared golfer of all time, and Schwartzel reaching out for the best of himself.
Now, the belief is that these elements will be compounded in the next few days by the evidence that Woods, in the company of his Canadian guru of the currently untouchable influence, Sean Foley, is in his strongest position since his game – and his life – first began to erode so catastrophically at the Open at Turnberry in 2009.
Tiger, against the background of suspicion that his wife Elin had arrived in Scotland with a new passion for improving her ironwork – and not necessarily to enhance her scoring – had looked almost as vulnerable as the 21-year-old McIlroy here last year.
However, both men appear to be most handsomely healed, a situation which so many believe will carry them beyond such formidable challengers as Foley's other clients, Hunter Mahan, who won his second tournament of the year at Houston at the weekend, and another winner this year, Justin Rose.
There is also Luke Donald and Mr Evening Time, Lee Westwood, and this is not to mention the true favourite of the Americans, Phil Mickelson, who would so dearly like to join the Tiger on the mark of four Green Jackets.
So let's accept that there is more than a little potential to make one of the great tournaments – but one to impinge on or even obliterate the shot by Gene Sarazen that shook the world, or the Tiger's first dramatic eruption or Nicklaus's victory in 1986 at the age of 46? Not in another thousand years, surely not.
Consider the cast list that went into the production which ended with Nicklaus and his son and caddie Jackie embracing on the 18th green amid noise that might have reached to Savannah.
Nicklaus came back to overwhelm Tom Kite, who would eventually put down the burden of being rated by many the best golfer never to win a major, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price, Tom Watson and an extrovert youngster named Payne Stewart.
To win against such men, six years after the improbable point when he had won his 17th major title, you might have thought was a distinction that would never be surpassed, a sensation that could never be assigned routinely to the margins of the game.
Back in 1979, Nicklaus had talked passionately of his desire to make one last statement about his place in the game. He had regrets that some of the prime of his career had been, relatively speaking, neglected, and he had some guilt about the fact that his father, who had lit braziers to defrost the tees back on their local course in Ohio so the boy could get in his practice, had died at a time when one of the greatest talents the game had ever seen was fallow.
"If I have one last thing to do in golf, it is to remember that as long as you play, however old you get, however much your body hurts, you are obliged to play to win." It is why Nicklaus will be the least enthusiastic of the three horsemen on Thursday morning because if he can't win, if he can't feel that something magical is within his powers, he would he better off with a fishing rod and some of his memories.
There are so many of them, sweet and bitter, for so many brilliant golfers in the rush to acclaim a new high point of the game.
One of them belongs to Greg Norman – and must make him seriously reflective when he reads that no one suffered a more poignant fate here than young McIlroy. Enough so, certainly, to play again some of those shots that slipped away here 16 years ago when he dwindled so dramatically under the challenge of Nick Faldo.
Norman lost a lead of six as Faldo stayed at his shoulder, reaping the reward not only of his ultimate steadiness in pursuit of his third Green Jacket but his presence at something which, when you consider the full course of a professional career, was not so much a drama of sport as a human tragedy.
When you think of Norman's disaster the misfortune of Rory McIlroy was more a rite of passage and if the admirable Schwartzel made a little bit of history last year, he also left much of the most glorious of it serenely, untouchably in place.
This, anyway, is the inclination here. It suggests that we should enjoy the beauty of the course, the warmth of the sun and the quality of the action that can reasonably be expected. About the rest one should perhaps say, as Rhett did to the overwrought Scarlett, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."