Tiger Woods isn’t calling it quits, but he also isn’t sure where he’s going. He’s in the Bahamas this weekend, playing real golf for the first time in more than a year, finding out what’s left of his swing, his game, his legend.
“The better he plays,” mused current PGA hot shot Rickie Fowler, prior to Woods teeing off Thursday in the Hero World Challenge, “the better it is for golf.”
Of all that will be said by the time Woods wraps up his 72nd hole on Sunday, and all that is said today, tomorrow, and ever after, nothing will be more salient than Fowler’s words.
Even now, Woods remains golf. He was still that before teeing off in Nassau on Thursday after a 465-day layoff. He has been golf for the past 20 years, through 14 major titles, through 79 PGA Tour wins, through the pain and public spectacle of a disintegrated marriage, a reconstructed knee, and, more recently, a pair of back operations.
With no slight intended to the uber-talented likes of Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Fowler, and others, Woods being out of the game has remained a bigger golf story than anyone or anything in the game.
In his prime, he was a force the sport had never seen, a brand and fury unto himself, and despite his distractions both moral and physical, he won five times on the Tour as recently as 2013.
Then came the back operations, one in 2014, another in 2015, a reminder that there is nothing like a bad back to remind us, heroes and hackers all, that no one beats the aging game. Father Time camps out in every clubhouse, just waiting to collect on sucker bets.
Woods turns 41 this month. Babe Ruth was just less than four months past his 40th birthday when he called it quits with the Boston Braves in 1935. Like Woods today, he was still doing great things with a stick in his hands into his 30s. Then it all collapsed, quickly, the Bambino packing up for good after his lone at-bat against the Phillies on May, 30, 1935.
Like Woods, the game had never seen the likes of Ruth. That remains true of the Bambino to this day, and I suspect we’ll be saying the same of Woods at least 81 years from today.
How great it would be to see Woods catch fire again now, to see him Sunday after Sunday, fearlessly ripping tee shots, draining long putts, once more framing and defining the sport. But at 40-something? No matter how fierce, how committed, no matter how Tiger, it’s just not realistic.
It may not be over entirely for Woods, but the Woods era is over, a reckoning no doubt harder on him than the millions around the world who joined him for the record-shattering, spellbinding, fortune-making ride.
Although, Jordan Spieth the other day reminded one and all Woods has a way of cheating the odds.
“He’ll somehow prove to you,” Spieth noted to Doug Ferguson, esteemed golf correspondent for the Associated Press, “that he can do better.”
Woods, prior to his first tee shot on Thursday, ranked No. 898 in the world, which is what happens when even legends are forced to drop out of the game for 15 months. He was the only one in the field of 18 at the Albany Golf Club not ranked in the top 40.
And while Woods has been a fitness-and-training devotee (read: maniac) since his early days on the Tour, consider that only four players age 40-plus have won a major in the last 20 years. Thanks in large part to Woods, golf morphed into a power game in his era, courses around the world stretching their yardage in order to “Tiger-proof’’ their tracks from being turned into putt-putt courses by Woods and his big-hitting brethren.
Sure, great golfers easily make up for short(er) drives with expert short games and deft putting. But it was an inconsistent short game that began to bedevil Woods even before his back turned more gnarly than a Scottish links course. Even if he routinely could ratchet up his club speed again to 110 or 120 m.p.h. and crush drives upward of 300 yards, he would have to recover the magical short-range touch and laser-precise putting that separated him from the field for the better part of 15 years.
Consider his opening round on Thursday when he finished 1 over, slotting him in at No. 17 in field of 18 (only Justin Rose in his rearview mirror). He stood an impressive 3 under through 15 holes, then posted double-bogey 6s on Nos 16 and 18.
Again, he hadn’t played in more than a year. Everyone, even Woods, expected some rust. But for a guy known as the game’s best closer, each of those 6s had to feel like a self-inflicted two-handed driver between the shoulder blades.
“Mental mistakes,’’ Woods bemoaned when Round 1 was in the books. “I can clean that up.”
He was much better in Round 2, posting a bogey-free 65, tucking him into the middle of the pack. Better. But still not indefatigable Tiger.
With one eye closed, and one hand scrolling his smartphone for texts, Woods can play great golf. Post-Nassau, the key will be whether he can rekindle the inner drive and the competitiveness that had him ranked No. 1 in the world for a total 683 weeks in his heyday. Can he do what J.B. Holmes did on Thursday, rock it from start to finish, and put up a table-setting 8 under? Can he own the Hero the way Spieth did in 2014 when he won it with a 262 and a dispirited Woods finished 26 off the pace.
Not likely. Once considered a lock to race by Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles, Woods remains locked at 14. He has 79 wins on the Tour, three behind all-time leader Sam Snead.
No matter how this weekend wraps up for Woods, his pursuit of those fellow legends is likely over. In his game, there is no changing Bronx pinstripes for a last tour of melancholy in a Boston Braves B.
The game won’t see his likes again, and better now that Woods preserves his legacy before the greens and fairways he once owned begin to own him.