For years golf fans have speculated about the day when the sport would have to carry on without Tiger Woods to carry it. It seems that day has come, before most expected.
They played the PGA Championship last week—the fourth and last of the game’s annual “majors”—and Tiger wasn’t around for the weekend, having missed the 36-hole cut. His game, once a source of awe, has become an object of derision. “He’s not even limping properly,” quipped TV analyst David Feherty, as the sore-backed golfer hobbled off after yet another poor shot in the tournament.
Between 1997 and 2008 Woods won 14 majors. After the last, at age 32, he was deemed a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 in that august category. He hasn’t won one since in what should have been his most-productive years, and the line on his chart is pointing down.
If you follow this space you know that I’ve written about Tiger before. It’s hard not to because the arc of his career has been so spectacular. He was a golfing prodigy whose early deeds exceeded even inflated expectations; similarly, his decline has had elements of Greek tragedy. I’ve never rooted for him because, from close up during my working-press days, I found him arrogant, mercenary and controlling, but it’s still hard to see him as he is today.
His initial successes only made the reversal more startling. His first major victory—at the 1997 Masters-- was jarring, with a record-setting score and 12-stroke margin that caused the moss-backed custodians of Augusta National to lengthen and reconfigure their course to the point where comparing recent and past performances there have little relevance. Three years later he topped that by blowing away the U.S. Open field at venerable Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a performance that caused a collective shudder among his links foes. For the next several years no touring pro would tee up in a tournament in which he participated without feeling his shadow looming over him. Not even Nicklaus in his prime inspired such fear.
I’ve long held that a main reason for Woods’ dominance was the simple fact that he was a better athlete than any of his foes, and they knew it. Unlike sports that prize speed, strength and agility, golf is about rhythm and timing, and some unlikely looking types have excelled at it, but golfers still are jocks at heart and worship the traditional athletic virtues. I recall that when the powerful slugger Dick Allen was with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s he broke every clubhouse rule, often showing up for games late, hung over or both, and disappearing between innings to cop smokes. No Sox teammate was heard to criticize him, however, tickled as all of them were to have him on their side.
Tiger’s physical edge began to slip with knee surgeries in 2007 and ’08, the price he paid for the effort he put into his dynamic swing. Worse yet was the blow to his psyche that resulted from the 2009 revelations that he’d been a serial adulterer with a taste for bimbos that put Bill Clinton’s in the shade. That came out in the most-humiliating way, when the golfer wound up in a hospital emergency room with injuries suffered after backing his car into a fire hydrant while being chased from his home by his wrathful, golf-club-wielding wife.
From a carefully honed image for discipline and rectitude, Woods became a long-running gag for the Internet and late-night-TV comedians. Sample joke: Did you hear that Tiger wrote a book called “My Favorite 18 Holes”? A lot of people returned it after they found out it was about golf.
That would have been tough for anyone to take, but especially for Tiger, a prototypical ducks-in-a-row kind of guy. Thanks to the mythmakers at Nike and IMG who’d packaged him from the time he turned pro, and abetted by Sports Illustrated, he’d been presented as someone with gifts that transcended sports. His father and mentor Earl described him for the magazine’s profile written when he was 21 as “The Chosen One.” Said dad: “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” If the golfer questioned that assessment he kept it to himself, as he did everything else that didn’t permit him to turn a buck.
Tiger scurried off for “sex-addiction treatment” after his fall from grace, and while he’s won some tournaments since his return-- five of them in 2013 alone-- he’s rarely been in the running in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, the only events he really cares about. This year he was sidelined for four months with back surgery to repair a pinched nerve. He returned (probably too soon) to play in the British Open, where he finished 69th, and in the PGA. Yesterday he pulled out of Ryder Cup consideration, saying he’d stay away from golf until his rehab was complete. Stay tuned.
Golfers can play at a high level well into their 40s (Nicklaus won his last major at age 46; Julius Boros won one at 48), so the 38-year-old Woods is by no means washed up by the calendar. Maybe he’ll regain his mojo and storm the heights again, maybe not.
There’s a new phenom around in Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of this year’s PGA and British Open, and two other majors before that. Nicklaus, who wants his record to stand forever, stuck a needle in the young man recently by saying there was no reason he couldn’t win “15 or 20” of the shiny baubles. TV ratings for the closely contested PGA Championship were better than they had been for years, so fans may be finding new reasons to watch. Still, for a long time they’ll probably be doing it with an eye out for Tiger.