This is the perfect place for Tiger Woods to make his comeback, not just because it can guarantee him security. It is ideal because it can guarantee him humility.
Only the Masters can get away with publicly telling him he has let down the whole sport, the way tournament and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne did Wednesday. If Woods chooses to be offended, so be it. There still will be a Masters next year and the year after that and for decades to come. It will far outlast Woods' ability to compete in it.
The Masters is bigger than any individual who ever did or will play in it. That's the beauty of it. That's why it will handle the spectacle of Woods' first competitive golf shot since his reputation collapsed last November in a sprawling, mushrooming sex scandal.
If the Masters is big enough to draw Jack Nicklaus to come, take one swing and get off the course, it is big enough for anything. Woods will be able to appreciate that as well as anyone, since he has defined his magnificent career in terms of how it measures against Nicklaus'.
Nicklaus has never made it a secret that he hates ceremonial golf, just hitting the ball and waving to the crowd. You don't win 18 major championships and become the greatest golfer ever without being enormously proud. But he will be up early Thursday, teeing it up with Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter at 7:40 a.m., because it's the Masters.
"You know, I thought it would be a nice thing to do," said Nicklaus, the 70-year-old six-time Masters champion. "I'm old enough now, I can do that, guys. We'll have fun and we'll both belt it out there about 150 [yards]."
Just like everyone else who has been alive for the past five months, Nicklaus knows the score on Woods. "He's taking large steps to get his life back in order, and he wants to play golf," he said, continuing not to say anything about the behavior that turned Woods' name into an international punch line. "Well, it's been none of my business, so I've stayed away from it, frankly."
It is his business if Woods wins this week, gains momentum on some favorite courses and closes in on his record for majors. Nicklaus is just too polite to say that it is. You don't win six green jackets without gaining the gift of being humble. There is no rueful reverse rooting when Nicklaus says about Woods' 14 majors and his route to a record-breaking 19: "I would say the chances are pretty darned good. Matter of fact, if he doesn't, I'll be very surprised."
First, Woods has to get through Thursday and the rest of this week. Woods figured he would be safe from the paparazzi and other chaos here. He is right. The Masters offers a very protective umbrella.
The protection comes at a price, though. Payne made it clear that nobody uses this tournament as cover. He called out Woods for having taken golf down a sewer. As much as Augusta National has opened its hospitable arms to the world's No. 1 golfer, it became the only entity in the whole sport to hold him accountable.
Payne, proving he is much better at reading statements than Woods is (see tape of Feb. 19), said that for the rest of his career, Woods will be measured against par and "the sincerity of his efforts to change."
If you say Augusta National, with its men-only membership, isn't a perfect arbiter of right and wrong, you will get no argument from this peanut stand. But the message Wednesday served its purpose. It reminded Woods that it is healthy for a person to recognize he isn't too big for rules. The timing and the setting were perfect.