Pretend, just for a moment, that The Hydrant Incident never happened. That we never heard of Rachel Uchitel or any of the "transgressions" that followed. That Tiger Woods was still a happily married man, as far as any of us knew. That there was no need for a swing change or self-examination or Buddhist bracelets or wooden apology statements or any of that. Just for a moment, imagine what that would be like.
Rory McIlroy sits three strokes ahead of Woods heading into the weekend at Augusta. If we were all blissfully ignorant of what we've learned the last 18 months, is there a person alive who'd bet on McIlroy's chances this weekend? Not even McIlroy's family.
Of course, we can no more dismiss what's happened to Woods since that Thanksgiving night than we can stroll up to Augusta National and sneak in a quick 18 Sunday afternoon. But Friday's definitive 66, combined with Thursday's good-enough 71, Woods is indisputably in the proverbial mix this year.
Certainly, it could all go south in a hurry. Woods has a way of turning gold into lead these days, posting at least one lumpy, misshapen round per tourney. A +2, +3 over the weekend isn't out of the question, and the way McIlroy and those around him are playing, that might be enough to keep Woods out of any realistic discussion about a fifth green jacket.
The conventional wisdom holds that the intimidation factor of "Tiger on the prowl," to trot out a hack little phrase once again, is long gone, that the younger generation grew up facing Woods on video games and thus doesn't quail in terror at the sight of him. Heck, McIlroy said as much last year when he indicated he "fancies his chances" against Woods head-to-head.
Saying it is one thing. Doing it is quite another. How will McIlroy and Jason Day, both of whom were still in grade school when Woods won his first green jacket, react to the presence of a known predator right behind them on the leaderboard? Those holes that looked large enough to putt a basketball into, those greens that looked glass-flat, those fairways that looked broad enough to land a plane on -- all of them will tighten, inch by inch and yard by yard.
Woods has absolutely nothing to lose; he's proven himself over and over here, and he's already exceeded expectations just by getting into the top three. McIlroy, Day, Rickie Fowler, Alvaro Quiros -- these guys are facing the test of their golfing lives. One way or another, we're going to see history made this weekend.
Sleep tight, Rory.