The prelude to this year's Masters truly began 20 months ago and 1,300 miles away. On that clear midsummer's Sunday in Minnesota, Tiger Woods stood on the 15th fairway of Hazeltine National Golf Club with the PGA Championship in his grasp. Turning to his caddie, he predicted that if he birdied the final four holes, he would win the title.
He was right to say it. He had won six of the past 10 major tournaments as if by divine decree, sweeping aside jangle-nerved competitors with greater steel than any club in his golf bag. But then the unthinkable happened. Woods birdied the final four holes - and lost to a one-time cellphone salesman.
Since that moment, the winners of golf's most illustrious tournaments have been far from illustrious names - not a Woods or Els or Singh in the bunch. In fact, the past five major tournaments have all been won by players who had never before won a major tournament.
Part of it, surely, is coincidence. And analysts suggest that the streak points to the increasing number of high-quality players. But beneath all that, say some, is the unmistakable fact that Rich Beem - the ex-salesman-turned-patron-saint of golf's underclass - punctured the Tao of Tiger and golf's other titans that day.
"He was the first [player in a major] to stand up to Woods when Woods was playing at his best," says Cameron Morfit of Golf Magazine. "It may have been a bit edifying to realize that this could be done."
Now, it falls to what is, in many ways, golf's most tradition-bound tournament to restore normal order to a game turned on its head.
Indeed, the period starting with Hazeltine has been a virtual amateur hour of champions. While two of the major winners have been longtime tour professionals expected to eventually win, the other three seem to have emerged from the deep rough.
PGA winner Beem, a club pro in El Paso, Texas, actually quit golf in 1995 to sell cellphones and car stereos in Seattle. British Open winner Ben Curtis had never played in a major before. And 2003 PGA winner Shaun Micheel had never won a PGA Tour event in his 11 years as a professional golfer.
It is an indication of how good golf's supporting cast has become - and how difficult it is for any one player to rule the game. "Back in the days when [Jack] Nicklaus was dominating, the field wasn't as deep," says Brian Hammons of the Golf Channel. "If you were one of the best 10 guys, chances were, you were going to win. Now the whole field can win."
In essence, Woods has made it harder on himself by being too good. His race toward history two years ago - at one time holding all four major titles - forced other players to raise their games. Woods's strict adherence to fitness and weight-training, for instance, has revolutionized the game. Once thought of as unnecessary or even harmful, it is now an integral part of any serious golfer's regime. "Tour players have had to be a lot more competitive than in the past because Tiger set the bar so high," says Matt Rudy of Golf Digest.
And not just the players have changed. When Woods blitzed the field at the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997, finishing 18 under par, he set in motion the most radical transformation in the history of the tournament. Once a shotmaker's paradise, where the scent of dogwood and antebellum clubhouse seemed to befit the understated subtlety of the golf course, Augusta National has now become a bombing range.
Tees have been moved closer and closer to South Carolina. The rough has grown to uncivilized lengths. And trees have become bunkered walls of branch and bark rather than postcard backdrops for the azaleas. The result could prove the perfect antidote to golf's no-name plague. "The golf course fits the best players," says Andy North of ESPN.
But to many, it might also diminish the Masters ever so slightly. The US Open, after all, is famous for its treacherous links - where any score below par could win the tournament. The Masters, however, is the image of the miracle comeback on the back nine - Nicklaus racing back from oblivion as the galleries worked themselves into a frenzy, the late-hole magic of Arnold Palmer.
In this, Palmer's last Masters, those comebacks are probably a thing of the past. "It's become a very, very hard course, and you're not going to see the heroics that the Masters was famous for," says Hammons. "That's a shame."