The Masters: Magical Augusta course set for a battle of the ages
The sun shone out of an unblemished sky, bathing the most gorgeous garden on earth in a honeyed glow. From a spot behind the 18th green the aching beauty of The Masters reveals itself. To the left the 10th fairway tumbles away into the distance toward a shaded green, where the shadows of the Georgia pines stretch out like fingers as if to claim the fairway and drag it back into the woods.
To the right the first hole climbs steeply towards the western perimeter of the estate. To the south a vast bowl opens out drawing the eye and the heart towards the defining three holes of the course, Amen Corner. On days like this Augusta National presents arguably the finest expression anywhere of the Victorian ideal of open space as recreation, and into the middle of this halcyon setting, with the hour striking 10, strode one Tiger Woods.
The gods had scripted his entry. A packed gallery was already corralled around the green as if it were Masters Sunday. Woods was completing his final nine holes of practice in the easy companionship of Freddie Couples and the eager company of Keegan Bradley. The latter might well be joining him four days hence when it really matters. As they cleared the dogleg to claim their balls, the noise around this temporary amphitheatre amplified.
The sins of Woods past are no longer part of this story. Reconstituted as a family man, the world No 1 is once more the heartbeat of golf and worshipped at Augusta. He obliged the throng by sending his ball along the arc of a tracer bullet 10 feet from the pin. Bradley followed him adding the flourish of a staged bounce off the banking before coming to rest beside Woods's ball. Cue a mighty burst of whooping and hollering.
Couples had fired his approach left of the green and was engaged in a comedy search under a chair, fishing inside a souvenir bag with his wedge. More laughter. You gotta love, Freddie, was the thrust of the green-side refrain. The three-ball concluded with handshakes and fist bumps before disappearing towards the sanctity of the clubhouse to prepare for the afternoon par-three competition. Few silhouettes command space like that of Woods'. Bradley and Couples understood they had only walk on parts in this performance.
This is where it all started for Woods in 1997, a 21-year-old with an unquenchable hunger and desire to reset golfing parameters became Masters champion in his first appearance as a pro. Sixteen years on the prospect of a 15th major championship dominates the agenda. Woods has made a powerful case with three wins already this season and six in the past 13 months. He is injury free and in full command of his game. At 37 he believes he has at least another decade to chase down the 18 major total set by Jack Nicklaus, who reiterated his belief that Woods would do it.
Interestingly, Nicklaus added the caveat that, such is the imperious form he brings to this championship, failure to add to his haul here might make the job of catching him more difficult. "I've said it, and I continue to say it, that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven, and too focused on that. Now, a lot of you will say, he can't do that. He's 37. From this point, he's got to win five majors, which is a pretty good career for most people to start at age 37.
"He's played very, very well this spring. I think if he wins here, I think that it would be a very large step towards regaining the confidence that he has not won a major in, what, five years? It's been a while. He's going to have to figure it out. But I think if he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him. If he doesn't figure it out here, after the spring he's had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him."
The endorsement of Nicklaus is something to have and instructive in the insight he offered into the business of winning. He arrived at Augusta in 1986 already in his golfing dotage and not expecting to win at 46. His schedule had reduced to 12 events. He was still a player, but not the player he was. And then the putts started to drop. "It's kind of funny because it was sort of like I got myself in position to make a run in the early part of the back nine, and all of a sudden I start making birdies and all of a sudden I remembered how to play.
"I remembered the feeling of being in contention. I remembered the feeling of how you control your emotions and how you enjoy the moment, too, and be with it."
Woods could not have looked more at home. The smile strapped to his face is perhaps the greatest worry for his rivals. Another who knows how to win is Rory McIlroy, who comes here in the best form of the year and as much in love with life as Woods appears to be. McIlroy had girlfriend Caroline Woszniacki on the bag for the par-three ceremonials, suggesting all is well in heart as well as mind.
This event is calling out also to the likes of Justin Rose and Lee Westwood, seeking a first major success at opposite ends of the 30s spectrum. Rose has found a new peak and a career-high ranking of three and at the age of 32 is bang on the mean for winning here.
Westwood plays his last Masters of his 30s. He might have won here in 2010 when he was edged somewhat fortuitously by Phil Mickelson, and again last year when his putter let him down. Perhaps this year, when few are looking his way, will be the moment when providence decides in his favour. The lad deserves a break.
Master men: Three who could spoil Tiger's party
A mercurial golfer with a turbo switch. If he gets even half a sniff, and his form coming into this tournament is bubbling nicely to the boil, he has a talent and a winning instinct deep enough to make even Tiger Woods wince. He wants it badly enough.
Long-hitting risk-taker who moves ominously about this golf course. None will attack more pins. If he can contain his instincts a tad and acquire more patience on the greens he has an outstanding chance of adding a second major to the US PGA championship he won in 2011.
Lost out to the unprecedented four-birdie finale of Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Blew a four-hole lead with four to play at the Open Championship last year. Fate owes him one and if he gets the ball rolling on the greens, he is a birdie-making machine.
Belfast Telegraph Digital