Tiger Woods in a green jacket once felt like an annual celebration of spring, as regular as the azaleas bursting with color at Augusta National.
Now it's more like a fading memory.
It has been eight years since Woods rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt to win the Masters in a playoff for his fourth green jacket. He appeared to be well on his way to living up to the audacious prediction made by Jack Nicklaus, who played a practice round at Augusta with Woods — then a 19-year-old amateur — and Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus came away so impressed that he considered his six Masters and the four won by Palmer and said, "This kid should win more than that."
But the major Woods was supposed to dominate has become the major he can't seem to win anymore.
"It's been one of those things where I've been close there so many times on that back nine on Sunday, and I just haven't won," Woods said. "I've been in the mix. Been on the periphery and played myself into the mix. I've been right there with just a few holes to go, and it just hasn't happened. Hopefully, this year it will be a different story."
This might be his best chance to end the drought — not only at the Masters, but in the majors. His last victory in one was the 2008 U.S. Open.
Woods is fully healthy for the first time in years. He appears happy after a scandal that ruined his marriage and his image, announcing a few weeks ago that he's dating Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn. He is winning again at an alarming rate — six out of his last 20 on the PGA Tour, including consecutive wins heading into the Masters. And he is back to No. 1 in the world.
Also back is his swagger.
"Everyone is waiting for the first major. I don't know why they're waiting for that," Hunter Mahan said. "I think he's done enough this year to realize that he's still really good and he's still better than everyone else. He set the bar so high, I don't know what is going to make everyone go, 'He's back to that time.'
"It seems hard to be intimidating in golf," Mahan said. "But I think he's the closest thing to it."
Now all Woods needs is another green jacket.
He has only worn the jacket for the Champions Dinner since last winning in 2005, and as defending champion at the trophy presentation a year later. Woods had six three-putts in 2006, twice missing eagle chances inside 15 feet on the back Sunday when he finished three shots behind Phil Mickelson. Those close to Woods suspected he was simply trying too hard, knowing it would be the last time his father watched the Masters. Earl Woods died a month later.
"Just really wanted to have him be a part of one last major championship victory and I didn't get it done," Woods said. "It hurt quite a bit. ... There's never been another defeat that has felt like that."
But the losses kept piling up. Woods couldn't catch Zach Johnson in 2007, hurt by a bogey-bogey finish in consecutive rounds. A cold putter stopped him in 2009, and in his last great chance in 2011, he was tied for the lead going to the back nine on Sunday and played it even par.
"Why has Tiger not won there in eight years? I don't know," Graeme McDowell said. I guess the style in which guys play nowadays, guys are long and aggressive, and it's not like Tiger back in '97 when he dominated people with his length. He was playing a completely different golf course from everyone else. I think there are so many guys now who can decimate a golf course like that when it's playing benign."
One of those guys is Rory McIlroy, though golf's next big star hasn't looked like one lately.
The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland won the PGA Championship in Augusta for his second major — more than Woods had at that age — and then became the first player to win back-to-back tournaments with Woods in the field during the FedEx Cup playoffs a month later. He closed out the year by capturing the money title on the PGA and European tours, and he was the undisputed best player in golf.
That's no longer the case. With so much scrutiny over swapping out all of his equipment under a massive Nike endorsement, McIlroy has languished. The missed cut in Abu Dhabi. A first-round loss in the Match Play Championship. Quitting after 27 holes of the Honda Classic. McIlroy added the Texas Open a week before the Masters, desperate to shake the rust out of his game and replace it with some confidence.
"All the pieces are there," he said. "It's about putting them all together. And once I put them together, I'll be fine."
Brandt Snedeker figured to pose a challenge when he went through a torrid stretch at the start of the year by finishing runner-up in consecutive weeks to Mickelson and Woods, and then winning at Pebble Beach. But he had to take a month off with sore ribs, and Snedeker missed the cut in two events since his return.
Mickelson is always a threat at Augusta — another win would give him as many Masters titles as Woods — but he is as unpredictable as ever.
Woods typically is the man to beat in the majors, and in that regard, nothing has changed.
It's everything else about this Masters that is so different.
Along with speculating who will win a green jacket, there figures to be plenty of buzz about who's already wearing one — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. The club invited its first two women to join in the 80-year history.
"A joyous occasion," chairman Billy Payne said in Augusta when the club took the unusual step of announcing its latest members.
There is rarely a dull moment in the first major of the year, a product of being played on the same course with its spring beauty and endless cheers at Amen Corner. Consider the last four years alone:
— Angel Cabrera hit a shot off a tree, only for the ball to carom back into the fairway to keep his hopes alive in a playoff, which he won on the next hole in 2009.
— Mickelson appeared stymied behind two pine trees on the 13th hole, blasted a 6-iron off the pine needles and between the trees, a signature moment in his one-shot win.
— McIlroy had a four-shot lead going into the final round and hit a tee shot on the 10th hole that went behind the cabins, a spot he didn't even know was there. He made triple bogey and shot 80, and Charl Schwartzel became the first Masters champion to finish with four straight birdies.
— Louis Oosthuizen made the first albatross on the par-5 second hole — it took 21.5 seconds for the ball to leave his 4-iron in the fairway and drop into the cup for a 2 — only to lose the Masters in a playoff when Bubba Watson hit a shot that hooked 40 yards out of the trees and onto the 10th green.
What's next? Maybe the better question is who's next?
"I would trade all my tour wins for one green jacket. That's the place I want to win more than anywhere else," Snedeker said. "It encapsulates what I think is golf at its finest. Augusta is more than a golf tournament. It's an experience. The Kentucky Derby is more than a race. The Super Bowl is more than a football game. It's a social experience."
This is shaping up as a Masters for the ages, with Woods on the cusp of returning to his full greatness, and McIlroy needing a green jacket to give him the third leg of the career Grand Slam. And there has never been an age discrepancy as wide as this one among the newcomers — 46-year-old Thaworn Wiratchant of Thailand, and 14-year-old Guan Tianlang of China, who qualified by winning the Asia Pacific Amateur last fall.
"It's frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters," Woods said of the Chinese teen.
In so many ways, that '97 Masters seems like such a long time ago. And in some respects, so do the last couple of years.
Woods had only been married about six months when he last won the Masters in 2005. He was just starting to figure out the swing changes under his new coach, Hank Haney. If there were rivals, none were younger than him. The Nicklaus record seemed to be a matter of when, not if.
Based on the two months leading up to the Masters, Woods looks poised to reclaim his place as the best in golf, and get back on track in his pursuit of Nicklaus. His Sunday red shirt has looked brighter than ever this year. It might look even more intimidating under a green jacket.