In the film “Cool Hand Luke,” the titular character is a charming rogue whose flouting of prison rules and authority makes him a superhero to his brothers in chains.
Except he isn’t. When Luke is brutally beaten after an escape attempt, his admirers don’t really care about his pain. They gather mostly to hear of his good times on the outside, to leach from him some color to counter the drabness of confinement.
Instead, he screams at them: “Oh, c’mon! Stop beatin’ it. Get out there yourself. Stop feedin’ off me!”
Which brings to mind Tiger Woods. How long can his fans keep feeding off him — or any athlete closer to the end of their glorious career than its beginning?
As news trickled in Tuesday about the serious leg injuries the golf legend sustained in a car accident, there was already speculation about whether he will make another comeback. Can Woods claim one more Green Jacket at the Masters, as he did in 2019? Will he again stride toward the 18th hole, the giddy throngs clamoring behind him, to put the finishing touches on another Major masterpiece?
After an accident in which Woods could have lost his leg or his life, whether he plays another round of pro golf is irrelevant. Yet analysts and fans are thinking less about what Woods will face just to get back on his feet than whether they’ll be afforded another chance to marvel at what were often described as his superhuman feats on the links.
More than 25 years into Woods’s storied career, his fans still want him to do what no one can — outplay time itself.
In recent decades, we have been blessed to live in an era of athletes who have redefined their sports, changing the definition of greatness. In particular, I mean Woods and Serena Williams, who has dominated tennis almost as long as some of her current opponents have been alive.
Tom Brady, 43, who recently won his seventh Super Bowl and first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, deserves a mention here, but with an asterisk. His mastery is very much tied to his supporting cast — the offensive and defensive lines, running backs, and especially his receivers. Even Gisele Bundchen, Brady’s wife, was quick to point that out after the New England Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI to the underdog New York Giants in 2012.
That’s not the case with Woods or Williams. On the golf course or the tennis court, the spotlight shines on them alone. There’s no one else to blame for a wayward putt or an unforced error. This makes their extraordinary longevity and levels of achievement not just notable but transcendent.
Add to this that both have excelled in sports where they, especially Woods, didn’t see other competitors who looked like them. (To be clear, unlike Williams and her older sister Venus, Woods, who touts his mixed heritage, has never embraced his Blackness or what that should have represented in golf. Ever.)
Still, both are single-name phenomenons who became the most recognizable faces in their sports and challenged their most hallowed records. Williams is one Grand Slam shy of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24. But she is also 39 and hasn’t won a major since the 2017 Australian Open — when she was several months pregnant. She is arguably the greatest athlete ever.
Nothing makes a sports fan feel older than to watch in real time a beloved athlete move from nascency to dominance to decline. Considered the greatest golfer in history, Woods is 45. Even before his accident, he was recovering from his fifth back surgery. In recent years, it seems he has spent more time nursing injuries than competing. He has 15 Major titles, three short of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.
If Woods and Williams don’t surpass those records, it won’t diminish what they have contributed to their sports and society.
For now, Williams is ignoring talk of retirement. And it’s impossible to count out Woods, whose competitive spirit is legendary. Yet aging remains undefeated, even for those whose exploits have fed our hearts to fullness. Our greatest athletes seem to stop the clock, their superlative gifts immune to erosion. Yet even when we refuse to hear it, that clock is always ticking. And through Woods and Williams, superstars for the ages, we reluctantly recognize what cannot be denied about our mortal selves — the ravages of time spare no one.