Not long before Charl Schwartzel won the 2011 Masters, the grounds of Augusta National rocked with delicious possibility and eager anticipation. Tiger Woods was back on the prowl.
An eagle on No. 8 propelled Woods within a shot of the lead, bringing forth thunderous roars of approval and anticipation. The gallery sensed that golf's fallen superstar was about to reclaim the throne he had vacated during troubled times. And when it didn't come off that way, when South Africa's Schwartzel ascended from the ranks of the mildly known, a feeling nonetheless persisted that there would be another green jacket or two in the future of the man who'd dominated the sport for nearly a decade and a half.
A heightened inevitability shadows Woods heading into golf's first major of the season. In early March he threw a 62 on the board in the closing round of the Honda Classic. A two-plus-year winless drought expired with his victory last weekend in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He appears primed to emerge from a long, arduous journey through personal turmoil and changes in coach, caddy and swing and resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 majors.
Woods is golf's Dallas Cowboys, its New York Yankees. Fans and peers either cheer him on or root for his demise but seldom sit on the fence of indifference. But all must admit that the golf is more interesting and the drama intensified when the weekend rolls around and Woods is in the mix, threatening to unleash the magic that produced his iconic status.
"You know, there's a familiarity of Tiger Woods being on the leader board every week, because that's what he did when he was at his best, and you know, up until a few years ago, really," Graeme McDowell said at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "No doubt, it's been a weird couple of years without him kind of competing, but I'm kind of in the camp that believes that Tiger Woods is extremely good for the game of golf and great to see him back playing good again and competing for events."
Story lines abound at this year's Masters, Woods's being foremost among them. Also compelling are Schwartzel's quest for major validation, Rory McIlroy's pursuit of redemption and the plight of the Aussies, never better than best man at the green jacket ceremony.
Schwartzel and McIlroy share the bond of 2011 because one owes his first major title in part to the unraveling of the other. McIlroy carried a four-stroke advantage into the final round of the Masters but opened play like a man trying to dig fingernails into the side of a cliff. His grip gave way with a triple-bogey on No. 10 and he didn't hit bottom until he had carded an 80 and tied for 15th after holding at least a share of the lead each of the first three rounds. And while McIlroy won the ensuing U.S. Open, the Masters carries a different burden. The site never changes, the demons always remain. Greg Norman knows all about it.
As for Schwartzel, he insisted in February, during his returning champion's news conference, that McIlroy's excessive generosity was incidental to the result. No winner in tourney history had conquered the daunting closing stretch with four straight birdies, as Schwartzel did that Sunday.
"I don't look into it that deeply," he said. "For me, I won. I won my first major championship, and especially the way that I did it. If you think about it, I still shot 66. [He] still would have had to have shot 69 to have beaten me. People don't seem to look at that. It is what it is. I'm not a guy that worries about those sorts of things."
He is one to enjoy the perks of the accomplishment. The green jacket that goes to the winner became a standard part of his wardrobe.
"I wore it I don't know how many times," he said. "It traveled with me the whole of last year. Basically every single function that we went to, I wore it. I have no idea. I played 36 tournaments last year. I must have worn it more than 20, 25 times at some functions. There's something about the jacket. Every single time you put it on, it's a special moment."
Schwartzel's birdie binge left Australia in search of the Masters title frustrating in its elusiveness since Greg Norman squandered a six-shot advantage to Nick Faldo in 1997. Last year's runners-up, Jason Day and Adam Scott, are Aussies. Ranked Nos. 10-11 in the world, they remain their country's best hopes along with Geoff Oglivy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion who had a career-best tie for fourth here last year. Count the three among the 20 players with the best chance of winning this time around.
But all eyes, as usual, will be on Woods. Sheer length off the tee has worked to Tiger's advantage at Augusta, especially (and comically) once the course was "Tiger-proofed." That advantage no longer exists, at least not to its previous extent. Woods ranks 17th on the PGA Tour in driving distance. That's still formidable position, but time has cut into his dominance off the tee and that brings more players into the mix.
"I think that golf course favors the longer hitters," Jason Duffner said at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "They are going to be hitting some short clubs into par 5s, which is a big advantage, shorter clubs into some par 4s, which is another big advantage. They can spin the ball a little more. It just depends on the conditions and the weather. Sometimes the weather can even the playing field out a little bit."
It'll be a surprise if Woods fails to contend. He's already won four green jackets. He placed tied for fourth here two years ago when his life was a shambles and finished tied for fourth again last year. And surely his confidence is feeding off that long-awaited, drought-ending victory at the Arnold Palmer as he seeks his first win at Augusta since 2005.
"It's fun to have him back," McDowell said. "We want to win the biggest events and we want to win majors with him in the field because he's going to be possibly the greatest of all time if not the greatest of all time."