James Lawton: Tiger Woods can stalk golf's new breed with old menace
Published 27/03/2012 | 10:54
Every so often sport gives us something that has to be kept forever: Ali in Kinshasa, Maradona in Mexico, Federer at Wimbledon. Now there is the possibility of a gift which was first offered up to immortality 15 years ago amid the dogwoods and the magnolia of Augusta.
It is the prospect of once more seeing the real Tiger Woods, the one who in 1997, at the age of 21, did more than win his first Green Jacket and major.
He pushed back the boundaries not just of golf but any number of racial stereotypes and prejudices operating in country-club America, he created a game which made its organisers rush to re-shape courses which suddenly looked so vulnerable they might have been so many local pitch-and-putt tracks.
You may say that the barrenness of his game, and apparently so much of his life, since he was enveloped in scandal more than two years ago, makes the evocation of such glory somewhat premature on the basis of his first tournament win since then at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill in Florida at the weekend.
Maybe, but then maybe not because one of the things about seeing greatness in sport, watching its effect on all those around the author of it, is that it is so different to the normal run of winning and losing.
It is something that goes into your bones so that the prospect of it returning – especially in golf – is never quite abandoned, as we realised when Jack Nicklaus made his last serious move in Augusta and not so long ago Tom Watson threatened to turn the sports world on its head at Turnberry.
You don't think it prudent to entertain such ideas when Tiger returns to Georgia next week with the refurbished status of not just a winner but one displaying more than a little of his old authority? But then maybe you didn't give Ali the longest shot when he took on the ogre George Foreman in 1974 or Nicklaus when he won his last major at the age of 46 or Kauto Star when he became the first old champion to win back the Gold Cup.
Of course it is true that if the Tiger does reproduce at Augusta the sureness of his touch in Florida he will not return with all the trappings that greeted his arrival all those years ago.
The corporate image has taken more shots than a battered old punch bag. When he made his first public mea culpa the hiss of disdain was thunderous. He was not, said the consensus, a rich young man of extraordinary success attempting to re-cast his life but a desperate scuffler for the last of his sponsorship deals.
Right up to this week's publication of the character assassination penned by his former coach Hank Haney – with whom he won six major titles before his sacking in 2010 – the attacks on Woods's character have been quite relentless.
"Petty" and "selfish" have been some of the milder descriptions.
There has also been a learned treatise or two on the irredeemable decline of the game which once terrified his opponents so profoundly they were panicked into forgetting some of the most basic reasons why they had become world-class performers. Ernie Els once confessed that a whole generation of golf had been browbeaten into defeat but such deference has, we are told, disappeared with the emergence of Rory McIlroy and a clutch of new names at the top of the world rankings.
Yet who among the latest breed will go to bed over the next few days without some fleeting apprehension that maybe the Tiger is stalking their hopes as he did those of so many of the players who went before?
It is a possibility that brings unprecedented intrigue to the Augusta battleground, along with the suspicion that over the last few years Woods has stored up the insults that have come with the tide of opinion that the five more major titles he needs to surpass Nicklaus's record mark of 18 have slipped beyond his remaining powers. Such speculation can only be increased by the memory of early evidence of the Tiger's vengeful streak.
That was provided after his first crushing triumph at Augusta, one in which Colin Montgomerie was very much a victim of collateral damage. Before the tournament, Monty had advised the new boy that all the triumphs of his amateur days meant nothing now. He had joined the big boys and could expect one or two salutary lessons.
Montgomerie had plenty of time to reflect on those observations when he was paired with the runaway leader in the third round and watched him disappear into the far distance. Some time later, Woods was asked if the humiliation of his playing partner had been especially satisfying on his way to the great victory.
Tiger mulled over the question for an inordinate time, so long that it was reasonable to anticipate a reply of some humility. Instead he produced the broadest of smiles and declared: "Big time."
No doubt that reaction will be somewhat widened if it should happen that he walks in his old footprints next week. The prospect may not be entirely pretty, but how many can deny the inherent beauty of a great sportsman once again finding some of the best of his gifts?
If you happened to be in Augusta 15 years ago, you are not likely to be counted in their number.