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 and no reason to believe he’ll approach Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 wins in major championships, Tiger Woods might be starting to say goodbye.
As a prominent sports story, that is.
I never thought it was 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 sex romps with bimbos and the resulting fallout rocked his steely confidence, persistent back pain is derailing what’s left of a body once chiseled and indestructible.
The concern now is that Woods, 21 months from his 40th birthday, is breaking down and doomed to a premature retirement. The new watchword is “withdrawal,” whether it’s during a tournament or in the days preceding an event, and his latest white flag comes before this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he had intended to use as preparation for the Masters. It’s daunting enough that Tiger is off to the worst start of his career. When his performance woes are compounded by back issues that show no sign of healing, the questions go a step beyond his now-hopeless pursuit of Nicklaus’ record.
It’s now whether he even can make it to 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, now, 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. Mickelson is a far better bet to win a green jacket than Woods, who hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005. Odds are, he won’t make it to Magnolia Lane.
“It’s too early to know about the Masters, and I will continue to be evaluable and work closely with my doctors,” Woods said on his website. “I feel badly that I won’t be able to play in this great tournament this week.”
Said Palmer, who won his share of golf glory before he became better known by millennials as the guy with the iced tea/lemonade drink: “I am certainly sorry that Tiger is not able to play. Quite obviously, we will miss having him here this week. He called me to tell me that his back was still giving him a lot of trouble and he didn’t feel he should play. I told him I understood and wished him well.”
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. I’m afraid 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 is more likely to WD?
For now, it’s a sports tragedy. Eventually, we’ll simply stop caring, a bigger tragedy.