Reeling nation needs a Tiger win

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On a sun-splashed afternoon here at heaven's gate, there are a dozen people crowded around a corner of a giant wooden scoreboard.

They are staring at the standings of a golf tournament that has not yet started.

They are taking photos of the stenciled name of a man who has not yet teed off.

Tiger Woods … Windermere, Fla.

Even when he's not here, he's here, his name wafting through the pines like a southern breeze, his visage sparkling from every shadowed corner like the impossibly pink azaleas.

It is officially Augusta National Golf Club, but this is Tiger's house.

It is officially the Masters golf tournament, but this is Tiger's gig.

It begins today for the 73rd time, but rarely has it felt more important, its fair test heartily welcomed, its eternal tradition desperately needed.

This is about Woods, nine months after reconstructive knee surgery, stepping back in time to cement his future as the greatest golfer ever.

This is about America's sports fans, amid an economic and ethical crisis, clamoring around this pursuit as if it were a deep, cleansing breath.

Love him or hate him, our sporting soul needs Tiger Woods to win golf tournaments.

Right now, we need him to win this one.

In an era when little in professional sports seems real, we need to believe there are still athletes who have the humanity to stumble from heaven, yet the inhumane strength to return.

During a time when the economy has rendered sports events increasingly irrelevant, we need to believe that somewhere in America, there are still wallets deep enough to celebrate this greatness.

Woods is that athlete. The Masters is that celebration.

There is no great depression here. The place has been bustling. The lines at the restrooms are longer than a par-3. The crowds at the golf shop are as thick as a flock of pines.

Old men walk around smoking fancy cigars and sipping expensive liquor out of plastic cups. Young men stand behind greens quietly betting wads of money on tee shots.

Everyone talking Tiger. Especially the other players.

"I would love to be in the same group with him and walk down together on Sunday," said Phil Mickelson, already conceding that Woods will be in the final group.

There is no cheating here. The players treat the course like a church. The fans treat tickets like an honor.

Can you imagine hundreds of folks handing their cell phones to strangers for an entire day? That's what happens at gates here, folks willingly giving up their attachment to the outside world for a chance to step into a lost world.

Everyone, it seems, is now cheering for Woods. And if you've never seen a nearly entirely Caucasian crowd applauding a man of African-American heritage in the middle of the Deep South, well, this is about more than golf.

"You do tend to be a little bit rushed and a little bit over-awed by it all," said Padraig Harrington, who has won the last two majors and yet begins this tournament as just another wannabe.

There is no fake here. You can get a sandwich for $1.50. You can get the deep beauty of fairways that spend most of the year untouched. You can get the true test of players who know exactly what to expect from the most authentic venue in sports … and yet still can't beat it.

"You always see it on TV and you think, wow, that looks pretty cool, it looks like a postcard," said Greg Norman. "But when you actually drive up there, it really is identical."

Norman, by finishing third in last year's British Open, qualified to play here for the first time in seven years. Harrington is going for the Paddy Slam. Mickelson was once considered Woods' greatest rival.

Invisible, all of them.

Tiger Woods' presence here is like that giant oak tree behind the clubhouse, the one that's been here about 150 years, with arms that stretch all the way to Amen Corner.

He doesn't need any extra branches to increase his reach in a tournament that he's won four times while holding the scoring record, but this year is filled with them.

He's already won once in three tourneys since his return — a Bay Hill victory that stole a Sunday from the NCAA college basketball tournament — but this is different.

A major victory just nine months after knee surgery would cement his reputation as perhaps the world's greatest professional athlete.

A major victory nine months after he won last year's U.S. Open in limping, dramatic fashion would cement his legend.

A major victory in a year in which all four major tournaments are being played on Tiger-friendly courses could be the first step toward a legendary Grand Slam.

And, oh yeah, the completion of that Grand Slam would give him 18 major victories, tying him with Jack Nicklaus for what was once considered one of sports' unbreakable records.

All this, and he's ready. Man, is he ready. If you don't think he's been pointing toward this Masters since he first felt his knees' bloody stitches and searing pain, just listen to him answer the two most important questions during his news conference this week.

Do you expect to win?

"Always."

That's it?

"Sorry."

Further explanation, we're assuming, will commence today.

Masters at a glance Facts and figures for the 73rd Masters, which begins today at Augusta National Golf Club.Defending champion: Trevor Immelman.Purse: To be determined ($7.5 million in 2008). Bonus: One green jacket.Who's here: A total of 96 players, including three teenagers and 73-year-old Gary Player, who is playing in his 52nd and last Masters.Tiger trail: Tiger Woods, who last won a green jacket in 2005, has never gone more than three years without winning the Masters since he won his first green jacket in 1997.Greg's back: Greg Norman is here for the first time since 2002 after qualifying with a top finish at last year's British Open.Try for three: Padraig Harrington won the last two majors when Woods (knee) was out. Harrington hopes to join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only men to win three straight majors in the modern era.Notable: Not much was done to change Augusta National this year, and Masters chairman Billy Payne said he hoped a return to good weather would bring a return to the back-nine roars on the weekend.
The Masters WHEN: Today-Sunday.

WHERE: Augusta, Ga.

TV: ESPN, coverage at 4.

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