Once, he flirted with Grand Slams. Now, Tiger Woods owns the Gimp Slam, having missed all four major championships because of injuries. He confirmed the obvious in announcing he’ll miss the Masters for the first time, after back surgery for what he describes as a pinched nerve, and with his latest withdrawal comes a cruel, undeniable reality in modern sport.
The Tiger who once mesmerized us, had us speaking in tongues and celebrating him like no recent athlete other than Jordan, is gone forever.
Proud and defiant to the end, Woods will claim the latest setback is just a speedbump. In a statement on his website this week, he declared that he still intends to stalk Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles as well as Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour victories. “It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future,” Woods wrote. “There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.” No one doubts that Woods, who needs competitive golf in his life like the rest of us need food and water, will continue to grind.
But while athletes do return from these types of neurosurgeries, Woods is 20 months from his 40th birthday and has been fighting an assortment of injuries for several years. If no one else wants to say it, I will: The concern is that he’s breaking down and doomed to a premature retirement. The new Tiger watchword is “withdrawal,” whether it’s during a tournament or in the days preceding an event, and when his general performance woes are compounded by back problems that likely will recur in some form, the questions go a step beyond his now-hopeless pursuit of Nicklaus’ record.
It’s whether he can make it much beyond 40.
“A bad back is no joke,” Woods said.
Which is sad, because what we always marveled about the man was his physique, how his emphasis on optimum fitness led to the greatest run of golfing dominance ever produced. What hasn’t he dealt with since he won his 14th and most recent major, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, on one leg? He has had ACL surgery, an Achilles problem, elbow issues and, of late, recurring back spasms and lower back pain. What must be maddening to him is that his 43-year-old rival, Phil Mickelson, has avoided the same string of injuries with a body that never has seen the inside of a Gold’s Gym. And even if Woods did regain supreme health and didn’t feel any back pain, what about his head? Since his sex scandal, he has been a mental wreck in majors, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays. Why would one back surgery suddenly heal a complete human meltdown that has been in progress for six years now?
Seems like yesterday when a 20-year-old phenom invaded our living rooms and announced, “Hello, world.” Now, with every piece of news a downer, Woods is starting to say goodbye as a prominent sportsman. I never thought it possible that Tiger, he of the unprecedented golfing gifts and self-destructive capacity for scandal, could fade toward irrelevance. But as we near the six-year mark since his last victory in a major, a span of 22 career-defining events, Woods can’t stop a black-hole plunge now centered around his increasingly failing health. If romps with bimbos and the resulting fallout rocked his steely confidence, multiple surgeries have eroded a body once chiseled and indestructible.
There isn’t much sympathy for Woods in the world, not after extramarital affairs that exposed the consumer fraud of a so-called family man selling his image via endorsements. But golf is a far more compelling sport when he is contending for major titles, and his magnetic presence and red Sunday shirt are dearly missed. Other than Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy — and neither is remotely as interesting without Woods around — why would anyone but a golf freak pay all-consuming attention to the Masters next week?
I don’t care how much you might loathe the man. It isn’t good for any of us when Woods is headed for an unhappy career ending. Earlier this year, I wrote some passages that resonate even louder today:
His legacy, his obituary, the way he wants his children and grandchildren and Wikipedia to remember him — that is what Tiger Woods is playing for now. And, face it, the only way he’ll rescue a sagging narrative is with five more victories in major championships. Do that, and he’ll be known primarily as the greatest and most decorated of all golfers, and secondarily as the cad who bedded porn stars, alienated sponsors, lost $750 million in a divorce and became a punchline-pummeled pariah. But before he can win five majors, or four or three or two, he first must win one.
And how is he going to win one when he’s more likely to feel more pain?
For now, it’s a sports tragedy. Eventually, we’ll simply stop caring, a bigger tragedy.