Two years ago to the week, on a cool and blustery Sunday, Stewart Cink was making happy talk with playing partner Tiger Woods in the final round of the Masters.
The air that wasn't all that was chilly, apparently.
As they trudged around Augusta National, Cink, who finished in a tie for third, asked Woods where he was playing over the next few weeks, noting that he had plans to tee it up at big events in Charlotte, N.C., and Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
"Yeah, same here," said Woods, who finished second that day.
Cink laughs as he recounts what happened next. And by next, we mean almost immediately.
"The next day, he announces that he is having surgery on his knee," Cink said. "That's when I knew that, however his inner circle was drawn, that I was not in it."
The reality is, over his 14 years as a professional, almost nobody has been -- and that's exactly how he has preferred it. Like the ivy-covered concrete wall that surrounds the upscale development where he lives in Orlando, he wanted everybody on the outside and wholly unable to look in.
Brick by mythic brick, suspicious and controlling by nature, Woods constructed an image of invincibility that had endured nary a nick as he collected 14 major championships among his 71 PGA Tour titles. Then he plowed into a tree on Thanksgiving night and his car, not to mention his personal and profession reputation, suffered a head-on crash.
This week, we'll begin to learn whether his once-unassailable aura as a player was totaled, or suffered a minor fender-bender.
Previous and impervious, he was 10 feet tall and bullet proof. He was virtually unstoppable with a lead in the final round. He was impenetrable, intimidating and enigmatic. He could be haughty and condescending. His carefully constructed veneer was built in the statistics of victory and scant personal information. Within a few days after the crash, as the revelations from alleged mistresses bubbled forth like a backed-up septic tank, the taint became unbelievable.
He dodged cops, skirted public view for months and reportedly wrote huge checks to shush those slinging dirt. Tiger had been defanged, not to mention publicly neutered, and fellow players tracked the unbelievable tale. Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who considers Woods a friend, said he was shocked to learn that Woods was leading, "a triple life: golf, home and when he was away."
All three are in a shambles, but talk shows and steamy magazine details aside, it's the part within the gallery stakes that remains the greatest unknown. His first shot in 144 days on Thursday at Augusta National likely won't provide any conclusive answer, either. But at least it offers a glimpse.
Banged up and busted, Woods' steely aura has suffered in the eyes of many professional peers. The $1 billion question given the public humiliation he continues to endure, especially on the heels of his surprising loss to underdog Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship last summer, is whether Woods can ever reclaim the most indomitable air in golf history.
"I think all of his advantages are probably gone," NBC analyst Johnny Miller said.
No question, for a successful player, a guy's rep might even be worth a shot or two in crunch time.
"Guys say that to me, they come back and say, when you were coming down the stretch, we all knew you were there, we knew you were not going to lose it," Jack Nicklaus said this week. "And it's no different than today. You see Tiger on the leaderboard and they see them coming along and the guys start watching the leaderboard, they start worrying about Tiger."
Now that he has been proven to be mortal, that might change. Cink once joked that if Woods was cut open with a knife, wires and robot parts would be found just under the skin. Turns out, based on his alleged dalliances and assumed misdeeds, the world No. 1 was nearly hollow at his core. For the first time, players laughed at him, made jokes about his predicament and didn't walk on eggshells when mentioning his name.
"He used to go back to his hotel room very early, leave the golf course early," Harrington smirked on a U.K. chat show recently. "I just assumed he was playing video games, you know? I thought his life was quite boring."
After nearly five months off, swagger might have morphed into stagger. Not only was Woods actually fallible, he had more foibles than a golf ball has dimples. For now, at minimum, it's impossible to view him the same way.
"It will be interesting to see how the other players around him react when his name is on that leaderboard again," veteran Colin Montgomerie said. "It will be very different to see his name up there.
"He has that aura about him, and it will be interesting to see if other players react differently now, or the same as they did before. It will be very exciting times."
That's already the case, and the entertainment has come at Woods' expense. In locker rooms all spring, players have snickered at the reports relating to Woods' behavior. No longer is the gossip rooted in jealousy -- it's based in pity, with at least a sprinkling of contempt. Said one top 20 player: "He had it all and it wasn't enough. Now we'll see whether he can put it all back together again."
He might need all the king's horses and all the king's men. Apart from how he will be received by the public, the degree to which his deflector shield works against his peers is perhaps the most interesting subplot as he forges his comeback story. During the week of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, two tour veterans ran into Woods at his home course and both said the meetings were awkward. The dynamic has changed, past British Open winner Ben Curtis said.
"Everybody that tells you that it was the same as before would be kidding themselves," he said.
How it will translate to the course is anybody's guess, especially since Woods said he will attempt to throttle down his quick-to-fire temper, which many credited with being an important part of his competitive nature. Woods said he has embraced Buddhism, and nobody has the slightest idea whether that will result in a softer, more embraceable nature and less of his trademark killer instinct.
The fact that he has discussed even the slightest personal details connotes a sea change. Woods has forever spun stories to protect his image, if not the aura, so that few knew what was happening with his personal life. For example, Woods was asked repeatedly about the shape of his surgically repaired knee throughout 2009, and as the season wore on, he continually insisted it felt better than it had in years. Yet according to police reports released last month, Woods' wife handed crash investigators bottles of pain meds that she said he had ingested that day. Woods said this week that he had kept secret an Achilles' injury from the public and his peers and that he played in 2009 with a taped leg.
The Canadian doctor Woods was seeing, who is now under investigation in two countries for his ties to performance-enhancing drugs, told the New York Times that Woods sought treatment in October, well after he had shut it down for the season on the PGA Tour.
His near-pathological need to control his reputation was well known. Three years ago, before Woods' first child was born, he played a tournament round with Henrik Stenson, who revealed to Woods that his wife was pregnant with the Swedish couple's first baby. Though their kids were born within days of each other, Woods never mentioned a thing about his wife's pregnancy. A few days later, Stenson learned of Sam Woods' birth on her father's website, just like the rest of the world.
How quickly it all changed. Now we know far too much about Woods' X-rated private life, and it can't help but affect the way his peers look at him.
"I think guys will look at his face and see him as not being as invincible as before," said English sports agent Chubby Chandler, who represents players such as Lee Westwood and Ernie Els.
Players often bristle when it's suggested that they faint whenever Woods' name pops up on the leaderboard. But make no mistake, Woods' travails have confirmed that if he gets cut, he will bleed.
"You realize that he's a human being with problems like everybody else," Hunter Mahan said.
Add it all up and he has planted a seed of doubt in the minds of some as to whether the same levels of psychological intimidation can possibly exist going forward.
"I think the mystique has gone," Montgomerie told Sky Sports. "I think the mysterious nature of the guy has gone. He is suddenly, you hate to say, more normal now. Let's hope golf isn't damaged by that.
"There is no question there was an aura about Tiger Woods over this incredible record he has, not just in majors but in other world events. That wall has been split slightly and there are cracks."
There's a crack in the party line, too, because others are not so sure Woods' super-human image will be at all affected by what has happened. As veteran Robert Allenby said, Woods isn't injured, he won seven times worldwide in 2009 and has the greatest noggin in the game.
"Him as a player, I don't expect any change," Allenby said. "His ability to play the game in the past will not change in the future. He still will be the world's best golfer.
"The other side of him, I really don't know how that will affect him, if at all. He is definitely a very strong-willed person or he wouldn't have gotten where he is, first of all. And maybe he wouldn't have done what he has done without that mentally strong mind. He will come back and win majors and championships."
Nicklaus was clearly able to separate the public and professional aspects of the Woods enigma.
"But [tabloid fare] that has not been in his golf game," Nicklaus said. "It's had nothing to do with him as a golfer. As a golfer, he has not played for five months. That, as a golfer, would be the only issue I would have him."
So the deferential treatment will continue in some quarters. Interestingly, as the Woods comeback has grown closer, the criticism seems to have become less stringent. The cat's no longer away.
"I think the guys will look at him the same way as ever," two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen said. "If it was a cheating situation on the golf course or something like that, the players would look at you different. But it's a personal thing and it had no effect really on the golf, besides TV ratings."
The crowd will more readily embrace his opponents, too, taking away a valuable Woods asset. So, it's not just a matter of how players will react to Woods psychologically, but how he will respond to the changes as well.
"He's had an incredible aura," six-time major champion Nick Faldo said. "We call it in golf terms, '2 up,' and with Tiger it could be even more. When he walked on the first tee [at Augusta] this morning, no one really applauded him.
"This is going to be extremely different from what he's used to handling. He knows he has this aura, this magnetism -- he drew it from the crowd watching him, from the people watching on television around the world. But the aura has had to change."
Whether he can possibly reclaim it represents one of the most interesting unknowns over the remainder of his career.
"Intimidation was always an intangible in Tiger's corner," said Jim Nantz, who is broadcasting his 25th Masters this week. "When he stepped on the first tee, players felt they couldn't beat him. Some of that has been lost in this. Players always thought he was out practicing or working out.
"They realize now he's human."