In late March, he won at Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s course. Two weeks before that, he won at Doral, Donald Trump’s course. After these victories, Tiger Woods would take two weeks off before teeing it up for the Masters in mid-April, on Bobby Jones’s course at Augusta. A win there would be his fifth. Palmer won the Masters four times, but surpassing Palmer isn’t Tiger’s goal. In fact, he has already done that. Palmer may have made modern professional golf into a sport that is followed by fans who have never set foot inside a country club or even on a golf course; he may be the most popular personality in the history of the game; but Palmer won a mere seven major championships in his career. Tiger Woods has twice that many and has made it his solitary, determined quest to get five more. That would move him ahead of Jack Nicklaus, the only man who has won more majors than he has and who, with six Masters championships, is the only man with more than Palmer and Woods have now.

Tiger Woods, then, needs to win the 2013 Masters to close the gap that separates him from Nicklaus. That gap keeps him from being, unquestionably, the best there ever was.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this would have been considered an occasion of real athletic glory for Woods. He last won a major in 2008. It was a U.S. Open, the toughest of the four major tournaments, and it went to an 18-hole playoff and then to sudden death. Woods played on a bad leg and limped around the course. But he won on the first hole of sudden death, then promptly went in for surgery. “He beat all the rest of us, and did it on one leg,” one of the other tour golfers said.

The Nicklaus record—which once seemed forever secure, like DiMaggio’s streak or Ted Williams’s .400 season—looked vulnerable back then. Once he had rehabbed the leg and shaken the rust off his game, Woods would return, dominate, and win more tournaments, to include those five majors he needed to move beyond Nicklaus.

Then .  .  . the scandal.

If this is the age of anything in American sport, that thing would be scandal. Michael Vick, the NFL’s most electrifying player, goes to prison for running a dog fighting operation. Barry Bonds and other Hall-of-Fame-caliber baseball players turn out to have accomplished what they did with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. As did Lance Armstrong, who made a second career out of sanctimoniously denying all charges of doping and of going on the attack against his accusers. And then there was the Penn State football scandal, which ruined Coach Joe Paterno’s reputation as a man who did things the right way and revealed him, instead, as someone willing to tolerate the presence of a sexual predator within his program for the sake of winning.

The Woods scandal didn’t result in any jail time or criminal charges or congressional investigations, as did, for instance, the allegations that Roger Clemens had used steroids to retain the hop on his fastball. Woods was revealed as a serial adulterer, so it was just another sex scandal, except for the fact that there were so many women and some of them were of the elegantly trashy breed known as porn stars, and the fact that the thing was in such stark and hypocritical contrast to his image, painstakingly crafted and fiercely defended, as a family man, role model, and, even, racial healer.

Instead, he was just a heel. Another randy jock.

Furthermore, while the scandal did not result in any jail time, Woods was cited for some minor vehicular infractions. He’d tried to get away from his angry wife in his Cadillac Escalade and had run the car off the road, over a fire hydrant, and into a tree not far from his house. His wife followed him and smashed the rear window of the car with a golf club, providing material for many, many jokes on late-night television and elsewhere.

Woods, who had been secure and untouchable and unknowable, was now very much the other thing. He went from being idolized to ridiculed. From Sports Illustrated covers (Sportsman of the Year twice) to endless source material for the National Enquirer.

There was also the considerable financial fallout. He was, according to Forbes, the first athlete to earn a billion dollars. After the scandal, he lost almost all of his high-profile endorsements, Nike being a conspicuous exception. One study estimated shareholder losses from the damage to brands caused by the scandal at between $5 billion and $12 billion.

Then there was the incalculable part that nobody liked to think about and certainly not to joke about, the inevitable divorce and whatever damage the whole thing inflicted on his wife and two very young children.

It was the kind of epic fall that provoked a lot of Icarus imagery and would have stimulated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creative juices.

But then, Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” The line comes from notes that Fitzgerald made for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and perhaps he was generalizing from his own life. There are, of course, second acts in America and a lot of them. But there are not many first acts that flame out as spectacularly as Woods’s did. Not even Fitzgerald’s.

The Woods story is one of talent almost too prodigious to be believed. He was on television hitting golf balls when he was barely out of diapers. He broke 80 when he was 8 years old; 70 when he was 12. He became the U.S. Junior Amateur champion at 15, youngest ever at the time. Later, and almost inevitably, he became the youngest U.S. Amateur champion. And so on.

After two years at Stanford, he turned professional and joined the tour in 1996. In 1997, he won his first major, the Masters. He burned through Augusta and left the competition eating his exhaust, winning by 12 strokes. He was, almost predictably, the youngest player to win the tournament.

In 2000, he won six consecutive tournaments, the U.S. Open among them. That win, at Pebble Beach, may have been the most conclusive and flawless of his career. According to the Sports Illustrated account, it was “the most dominating four-round performance in the history of major-championship golf.” He won by 15 strokes and never shot a round over par in a week when the rest of the field managed only 32 subpar rounds.

One could go on and on but there is no point. Anyone who followed golf knew that they were watching greatness. And there were a lot of people watching; more than had ever watched golf, either in person or on the television. If Tiger was playing in a tournament, it was virtually guaranteed good ratings. Otherwise, the public saw it as a bunch of stiffs hacking around the course, and tuned out.

He was the kind of athlete who arrives like a comet, lighting up his sport. And because golf is an individual sport, he did not share even a small portion of the glory with teammates. With anyone. Which is how he and his family and his handlers liked it. When a colorful caddy began to get a little too much attention, was approached for a few too many interviews, he was fired.

A prodigy, then. Someone very, very special whose greatness—genius, even—was apparent from a very early age, especially to the strong father, Earl, who pushed him and molded him. After the scandal broke, people made comparisons to Mozart as the film Amadeus portrayed him. The talent, the father, the emotional immaturity.

Mozart lived to 35 and, to use the locutions of sport, was on the comeback trail, working on the Requiem when he died. Tiger Woods is 37 and fashioning a comeback of his own. Before this season, it has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back enterprise.

He stayed out of golf after winning the 2008 Open on one leg. His return in 2009 looked promising, but he did not win a major that season, and then came the scandal. In December 2009, he said he was withdrawing from competition. He made public apologies and then went into a clinic. He returned to competitive golf at the 2010 Masters and finished fourth. A promising return.

But he did not win a single tournament that year, something that had not happened before in his professional career. Still, at the end of the season, he had played well enough to be ranked number two in the world.

In 2011, he finished fourth, again, in the Masters. But the season deteriorated after that, and his world ranking dropped until he was 58th.

Things began to turn around late that year, and in 2012 he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was his first victory since 2009. The rest of the year was up and down, and the word for both his season and his game was .  .  . erratic. And there were younger players coming along who had never played against him back when he demoralized the competition while he was subduing the golf course. They weren’t necessarily afraid of him.

Still, there were unmistakable signs that he was back. Not all the way, certainly. Not in the utterly dominating way he had been at, say, that U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. But he was certainly no ham-and-egger on the course.

And in the mind of the public? There, he had a lot further to go. He was still the biggest draw in golf, and if you went to a tournament where he was playing, he was easy to find. Just look for the largest gallery. And if you couldn’t find it, then listen. After a while, you would hear the roars.

But .  .  . out among the larger public, the mood was still sour. In a poll conducted in February, ranking the least liked athletes, he finished third behind Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker and fabulist who had tugged heartstrings with stories about a dying girlfriend who, it turned out, did not exist.

But there was some good news. The year before, Woods had come in second in that poll, behind Michael Vick, who this year has fallen all the way to number seven. If a man imprisoned for running a dog fighting operation can be rehabilitated, however slowly, then surely the public can find it in its heart to forgive Woods.

Perhaps. But he doesn’t make it easy. There is the petulance on the course, where he will slam his clubs and curse after hitting a bad shot. It is the sort of thing that is especially distressing to old-school fans and golfers who think of that as the sort of behavior you would expect from a 15 handicapper on a run-down municipal course and egregiously inappropriate at Augusta, which is Bobby Jones’s course, after all, and he famously almost gave up the game until he learned how to control his temper and play like a gentleman.

And then, there is the cold, aloof demeanor. The icy distance. This, in contrast to someone like Phil Mickelson, who smiles almost compulsively and signs autographs, shakes hands, and connects with the fans. Woods, by contrast, seems to be saying to the fans that he is not out there to show them some love but to thrill them with some golf. They can like it or not, but probably they’ll like it because they won’t be able to help themselves. He makes an exception for members of the armed forces and will go out of his way to make the right gesture to, for instance, a veteran in a wheelchair who has lost limbs in combat and has come out to see Tiger play. His father, Earl, was with the Special Forces in Vietnam. The gesture is utterly sincere and in character.

He doesn’t owe the ordinary fan anything except the opportunity to watch the best there ever was. That, you suspect, is what it all comes down to. There isn’t anything special about an athlete wanting to win and being obsessively competitive. But there are not many who can imagine themselves as being the best there ever was and who routinely do things to validate, conclusively, the claim. Ted Williams said he wanted people to say that about him. That he was the best there ever was at hitting a baseball. He hit .406 one season to prove it. Michael Jordan wanted to be known as the best ever to play his game, and he played like that was the prize. Neither had what anyone would call a warm, extroverted, gregarious personality. It was better for fans to follow them not as people with whom they could share a friendly moment or with whom, indeed, they could make any kind of emotional connection. You could find something thrilling in watching Williams at the plate or Jordan bringing the ball down the court, looking to get open. Better that you didn’t know anything about them beyond what you experienced in that moment. The proper relationship being more like the one between mortals and gods.

The shame of the Woods scandal—and the celebrity culture—is that it has made that sort of relationship impossible. First came the slick sales job—husband, father, athlete, role model. That was a con. And people who bought in felt betrayed when it was blown. Then came the salvage job with experts like Ari Fleischer helping with damage control. This only deepened the cynicism, as Woods went through the various stages of image repair: apology, therapy, humility.

Please. We’re all adults here. Get back to golf.

You almost hope that the rehabilitation does not work. Woods should remain alone and aloof as is proper for the best that ever was. After he won the Arnold Palmer tournament at Bay Hill, Nike came out with an ad that showed Woods studying a putt with the fierce intensity he brings to the game. The words superimposed on that image read: “Winning Takes Care of Everything.”

It was, predictably, dismaying to many. Perhaps Nike should have used instead the famous line from D. H. Lawrence, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Or maybe they could have settled on Mark Twain—“Golf is a good walk spoiled”—and really kept things in perspective.

But if you think golf is something more than that, you will find yourself watching Tiger Woods with fascination at the Masters, making his claim on the title: best there ever was.

You just don’t want to get too close.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Next Page