The Masters and Tiger Woods go hand in hand, like peanut butter and jam, or milk and cookies. At least they have done for the past two decades. It’s where Tiger made his name, announcing his legend with that startling 12-shot victory in 1997. It’s the scene of the ridiculous, arcing chip shot on the 16th hole. It’s the sight of his sweeping, hooking long-iron on the second hole, with him chasing it around the corner like a giddy teenager.
It’s also where he made his return to the game after his transgressions of 2009, where he sparked controversy last year with his convenient drop on the 15th hole. Tournament officials would probably have disqualified anyone else, but Tiger affects the rankings – no matter how well he’s playing.
There are hundreds of Masters’ memories synonymous with Woods, but the electricity of the past has become as irregular as Eskom’s feed to the masses. It cuts out, just when you expect that old, familiar surge of genius to take over and lift Woods to that level others only dream of.
Sadly, Woods will watch the year’s first Major with most of golf’s mortals – on the couch. The Tiger used to burn brightest on the perilously pristine fairways of Augusta National, but his increasingly brittle body has become as erratic as his driver.
Who knows if we have seen the last of Tiger seriously stalking a Major crown on Sunday, with the stakes at their highest, and the opposition mesmerised by his ability under the cosh.
Father Time is the one enemy that defeats us all. Woods’ great friend, Roger Federer, has also seen the vagaries of time abruptly end his supremacy in tennis. Younger, fitter and more powerful players have come in and hurried his return to the chasing pack, far sooner than his graceful backhand would have liked.
The world always churns out another hero; another superstar to provide the generation that follows a figure to idolise, a superhero who makes the impossible seem attainable. Woods, in his pomp, was that guy. He could do anything, whittle down any lead. He was Superman. But his kryptonite seems to have been the relentless strain he placed on his body as he tried to get golf to be taken seriously as an athlete’s domain.
The wonderful thing about golf is that its sanguine nature, before the explosion of the clubface on the ball, allows all shapes and sizes to take part, and for most of their life. Woods re-invented the wheel, turning himself into a machine, and is paying the price for worn parts now.
Woods used to bomb the ball miles past anyone else, prompting course designers to “Tiger-proof” their layouts. That resulted in cavernous courses, where the new breed of athletes – human bulldozers like Gary Woodland and Dustin Johnson – stripe it beyond the old foes, and those trying to keep up with them do themselves a mischief.
Like Federer, Woods has fallen into the pack, trying to fight off the pretenders.
Will we ever see him win another Major? Ironically, his best chance to catch Jack Nicklaus may no longer be on demanding stretches of real estate, but on intimate layouts, where unerring accuracy is the currency of choice.
The Open provides one of these every year, where imagination remains the 15th club in the bag, and the Masters still has enough shortish holes to make him a factor. Every year, the experts say that his best chance is at Augusta, where he is so familiar with the undulations, the expectations and the screaming hush of Amen Corner come Sunday afternoon.
And yet, he has never looked further from attaining the one goal that he craves more than anything else.
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, they used to say. But are we actually seeing the beginning of Tiger, Tiger fading light, quietly slipping into the night? - Sunday Independent