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Tiger Woods’ place at Masters already one of mere nostalgia

Tiger Woods reacts to winning the 2005 Masters in a playoff with Chris DiMarco on the 18th hole on April 10, 2005.

(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)

The thought nags that Tiger Woods is merely ceremonial now. To corrupt a hallowed Masters phrase, Woods is an honorary non-starter.

Maybe a spot can be found for him to tee off with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, now that the fabled threesome no longer has Arnold Palmer.

All that will come in time, likely after Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw take their turns at the ritual. Woods will be alongside Phil Mickelson no doubt, once rivals and eventual relics. That is how it is done at Augusta.

Irrelevancy came much sooner for Woods than anyone thought, including Woods himself, and if he is two generations younger than those honorary icons who started another Masters on Thursday, he doesn’t act like it.

Still trim and fit, if a little thinner on top, Woods looks like the force he always was. That is, until he is induced to play the game that he dominated, starting 20 years ago on the hills and in the hollows of the old plantation nursery.

Woods is a young man in an old man’s body, one twisted and torqued and tortured by hitting a ball that will not move until he makes it. How so stationary a game could turn Woods into a perpetual patient is an ironic absurdity.

So, in watching Nicklaus and Player, geriatric shadows, give it a go the other day, it was easy to place Woods on the first tee, there for no other reason than nostalgia, fooling no one, not us nor himself.

Remember when? It was not that long ago. All the pictures are digital.

The Masters loves to hang on to the past, defying it as much as embracing it. Things are not supposed to change in Augusta, and when they do, they are blended to appear to have been there all along.

A few women are members now but on Augusta National’s terms, just as minority golfers were eventually invited by whim more than fairness. The modern world stands in line to get a patron’s badge.

An ice storm blew down the famous pine tree that used to so pester President Dwight Eisenhower that they gave it his name. And now they are thinking of planting another — Ike 2.0, I can imagine they’ll call it.

The turn down Magnolia Lane to the antebellum clubhouse is restricted to competitors and members, not the same thing at all. The long lane is lined by, yes, magnolia trees, a shady path to another world, another time, when white-coated lackeys lit the cigars of gentlemen on the veranda and never let the bottom of the glass get dry.

The real world is kept outside the wisteria that hides the cyclone fence. Inside, everything is a fairyland of golf, immaculate and familiar and available only to badge holders, mostly white, mostly round and mostly rich.

The Masters has turned snobbery into trade, creating an air of aristocratic indulgence, basking in public affection by simply allowing it.

There is stability to it all, I suppose, a reassurance that a world that never really existed has a place of its own. For a moment old men can pretend to be young, then wave on a new generation, like Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson did for years.

All gone now, those three, and what cannot be missed about the ceremony is the prelude to the inevitable. This year patrons received commemorative badges to honor Palmer, gone since the last Masters. Player and Nicklaus wept.

For decades Woods was the Masters, as much a signal of spring as the azaleas, jasmine and firethorn. The smells, the sounds, the tastes. The roar of wonder rolling back up the hills from the hollows below. Augusta National was Tiger’s place, where it all began for him.

The first Masters I covered, the honorary starters were Jock Hutchison and Freddie McLeod, left over from the very first one, both feeble at the time and grateful for even sympathetic cheers.

I felt then and still do something mournful and desolate about the ritual, for inevitably the feeling is not nostalgia but regret.

We don’t have to wait for Tiger Woods to take his turn on the honorary tee box. We feel it already.

Bernie Lincicome is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune.