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Golf is a sport where a career can be made in one swing. Right time. Right place. Right result. You can live off it forever.

The alternative is also true. One bad swing can burden a career forever. One bad swing, one bad decision, one evil break.When it is enacted on a stage as big as the Masters, everything is magnified a hundredfold. The Masters has its own gallery of heroes and goats, its Hall of Fame and Hall of Shame. Once you're in either, the doors seem pretty much dead-bolt closed.

Opportunity taken here makes legends - Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus.

Opportunity missed here is like a life sentence.

Middle-echelon golfers usually get one chance. Take it or leave it. Tommy Aaron and Bob Goalby took it. Ed Sneed and Hubert Green left it. Craig Stadler and Larry Mize took it. Greg Norman and Tom Kite left it.

The ones who left it return every year with "what ifs" pinned to their $200 sweaters. In their bags are 14 clubs and a scarlet letter.

Thursday on a dreary, rainy day, the Masters leaderboard boasted two men whose names are synonymous with Hester Prynne. Chip Beck and Scott Hoch opened in contention on a course where they struck their most infamous shots.

Beck's moment of doubt and pain came two years ago. Three shots down coming to the par-5 15th, he drove well and had 226 over the water to the front of the green. He needed an eagle. He needed to reach in his bag, pull his bomber and go for the green. Instead, he reached in, pulled out a white flag - an iron - and babied one down in front of the pond. Then he wedged over the green and bogeyed.

The nation's golf writers tore his flesh like vultures. "No guts" was the nicest thing they wrote.

Hoch's bad memory is six years old but just as vivid. In a playoff with Nick Faldo in 1989, he stiffed a 7-iron at the first playoff hole (the 10th). My memory says it was three feet; the official Masters record book says two. Let's compromise and say Scott Hoch blew a 21/2-foot putt to win the Masters. Faldo won it on the next hole.

Thursday, those shots came roaring back like tidal waves when the two men reappeared on the leaderboard.