There were no poetic words written for Babe Ruth’s final game at the stadium he built. Nobody mused about Gods and letters. The game was Sept. 23, 1934. It was well known before the game even started that this would certainly be his last home game as a regular, and probably his last home game as a Yankee. About 2,000 people showed up to see it. Ruth walked for the 104th time that season — one thing the man could still do was draw a walk — and then he came out of the game for what the papers called a “charley horse.” Ruth did finish off the season on the road, playing three games in Philadelphia and Washington, and he went to Boston the next year to play 28 sad games as a gimmick for the Braves. This proved, in the reverse of those immortal words by John Updike, that Babe Ruth did not know how to do the hardest thing: Quit.
But the point here is, people quit on him. He was 39, going on 40, and it was clear to everyone that he was done as a player (even though, with all those walks, he still posted a .448 on-base percentage in 1934). The Yankees offered him a minor league manager’s job then, upon his request, dumped him. After a few bad games in Boston, he retired. The point is, people understood that even the great Babe Ruth could not go on forever.
The same is true of Michael Jordan. He was, in the mind of most, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. I certainly believe that. His last six full seasons as a player in Chicago, he led the NBA in scoring and carried his Bulls to six championships. But when he came back to play for Washington at age 38, while there was a lot of buzz, there was no sense that he was the same, no sense that he could suddenly become young again. He still had enough fire and knew enough tricks to make himself a reasonable player, but nobody expected him to one day just become the invincible Michael Jordan again. And he never did.
Nobody (except perhaps wide-eyed Arizona management) expected Emmitt Smith to suddenly become his old dominant self when he went to play for the Cardinals at age 34. There was quite a bit of hype when Joe Namath went to play for the Rams at age 34, but only the people who believe in fairy tales could have thought that he was going to become Broadway Joe again (not with his knees shot and considering that he hadn’t really been worth a damn for three or four years). There was a desperate need by many (including me) to believe that Muhammad Ali had one more burst of brilliance left in him, one more butterfly dance and bee sting, and the house made a killing off those few naive souls who bet with their hearts when Ali fought Holmes. The house has built cities on the backs of naive souls who bet against time.
We often talk about how sad it was to watch Willie Mays flounder around at the end, to watch John Unitas get sacked time after time in a San Diego uniform that clashed with his football life, to watch Jim Palmer or Mark Spitz or Jim Brown begin “comebacks” that felt instead like sports funerals. They are sad, but I don’t know that we ever consider these things surprising. Somewhere inside, we understand and bow to the power of the years. Somewhere inside we know that even the greatest ever, even Dr. J., even Hogan, even Sampras and Aaron and Musial and Palmer, even Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Nicklaus, all of them get old. And when you get old you don’t get young again. It’s the unbreakable rule.
And we all understand it: Nobody goes back in time.
Except … we keep thinking Tiger Woods will go back in time.
The “we” in that sentence is getting smaller, no question about it. The “Tiger will be great again” school seems to be shrinking. The more we see Tiger Woods flail about on the golf course, like he did again this past weekend at Torrey Pines, the more people do seem to wonder about his future. But there is still something about Tiger Woods that seems to bend our perception of time. I can’t remember another athlete quite like him in this way …
… no, that’s not quite right. There is another athlete who bent time: Mike Tyson. In 1990, you will obviously recall, Tyson was knocked out by a no-name boxer named Buster Douglas. It remains one of the most remarkable sporting events I have ever seen in my life, and there is a powerful back story involving Douglas’ mother and his father, and there is no question that Douglas for one day lifted himself and found something in himself that nobody really knew he had.
But there’s another way to tell the story: A no-name boxer named Buster Douglas (who was knocked out by Evander Holyfield shortly thereafter) knocked out Mike Tyson. And that was it for Tyson. He was never a great fighter again. He was never a good fighter again. He had interesting but hardly titanic back-to-back fights with Razor Ruddock. He was arrested and convicted of rape. He had a series of pathetic comeback fights against setup guys like Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr., before getting knocked out by Evander Holyfield. He fought Holyfield again and bit his ear. He failed a drug test after fighting the comical villain Andrew Golota. He was knocked out and thoroughly outclassed by Lennox Lewis.
And yet, time after time, no matter how low he felt, there was a group of people who seemed certain that Mike Tyson would re-emerge as a great fighter again. It didn’t matter how bad he looked, how weird and pathetic he became, there were many people who just kept expecting him to show up one day and be the Mike Tyson who scared Michael Spinks to the canvas in 90 seconds and knocked Trevor Berbick senseless. It made no sense, at all, none, but there it was –it’s like there was a blind spot in the Tyson mirror, an inability to see him as anything except the hyped and spartan young man who wore black trunks and became the youngest heavyweight champion ever. We could not imagine him growing old and toothless.
It seems to me there’s a bit of that same blind spot with Tiger Woods. Let’s look at a few facts about Woods: After the 2007 golf season, he had won 13 professional major championships, and he was turning 32, and there seemed little doubt that he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors and semi-officially clinch his place as the greatest golfer who ever lived. In many people’s minds, he already WAS the greatest golfer who ever lived — Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, among others, say no one ever played at his level — but golf, like baseball, is a game of numbers and most agreed he needed to win six more majors to surpass the great Nicklaus. At the time, of course, it seemed like a foregone conclusion.
He finished second at Augusta in 2008, but it was a cosmetic second — he didn’t really challenge Trevor Immelman at any important point. This “failure” (which would have been a career highlight for almost anyone else ever) drove him. He went to the U.S. Open and put on the greatest show of his career. He basically won the U.S. Open on one leg. He beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff, though he grimaced on virtually every shot. That was his 14th major. Two days later, he had had reconstructive surgery done on his ACL. He missed the rest of the season.
He came back in 2009, and played well enough to sort-of, semi-contend at the Masters and the U.S. Open. He played miserably at Turnberry and missed the cut. He was still playing great for the most part — he won six times in 2009 — and at the PGA Championship he shot 67 on the first day, and led after the second and third days too. Tiger Woods had never lost a major championship he led going into the final day. Tiger Woods had never lost ANY tournament on American soil that he led going into the final day. But he lost that day. A no-name golfer named Y.E. Yang did not just beat him but crushed him in the final holes, eventually winning by three shots. It was as so stunning that people wrote it off. Like Buster. A fluke.
Three months later, Tiger Woods drove his Cadillac Escalade into a hedge, a fire hydrant and a tree at 2:30 a.m. We all know what happened after that.
Now, let’s look at this: You have a 35-year-old man who has not won a major championship since having reconstructive surgery on his knee — and in the last major where he contended he was taken out on Sunday. He has not won a tournament of any kind in a year and a half. He has gone through a very public divorce and a seemingly endless string of public embarrassments. He has changed swing coaches and has tried desperately and futilely to find a swing that fits his body and his age. Before this past weekend, he talked about how well he was hitting the ball at home, and he went to his favorite course, where he had won seven times, and after a pretty good couple of days (“I hit it as pure as I could possibly hit it starting out,” he told reporters) he played miserably over the weekend, shooting 74-75.
Sure, it’s just one tournament — and just the first of the season. Sure, it doesn’t mean anything — all of Woods’ preparation is focused on Augusta and the majors (that’s how Nicklaus was too). Sure, Woods’ game is still in transition — once his new swing kicks in, things might take off.
Sure, he could return to form, have another chapter as the greatest golfer in the world, win five more major championships* and claim his rightful place on the top of the list. But at this point, I think all that is a staggering long shot. He COULD have a glorious second career, absolutely. But I think at this point we have to say the opposite is more likely.
*I never think people realize just how unlikely it is for Tiger Woods to win five more major championships. Think about Phil Mickelson for a moment. He has been on tour for 16 years, since he was 25. He has won 38 times on the PGA Tour. That’s a Hall of Fame career — Phil Mickelson is almost certainly one of the 25 greatest golfers who ever lived. He has won FOUR majors in 63 starts. Does Tiger Woods have an entire Phil Mickelson career (plus one major) left in him over the rest of his career?
I was reminded of something watching the Farmer’s Insurance Open, a blatantly obvious but perhaps forgotten part of golf: To win a golf tournament, any golf tournament, you have to score lower than 100 or so of the best golfers in the world. That is: You have to beat the golfer who that week is draining every putt. You have to beat the golfer who who found a groove in his swing and is hitting every fairway. You have to beat the golfer who luckily chips in a couple of times, making his score artificially low. You have to beat the golfer who gets hot, makes five or six or seven birdies in a row, and rides that high. And you also have to beat the other great golfers, the ones who have extreme talent and burning competitiveness and want desperately to be the best in the world. At the major championships, all of this doubly true.
This is why even the best who ever played — Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Faldo, whoever — they didn’t win half the tournaments they entered or one-third of the tournaments they entered or even a quarter or one-fifth of the tournaments they entered. From 1962 to 1980, Nicklaus’s prime, he won 17 major championships — a glorious achievement. He finished second (or tied for second) 14 more times, which blows the mind. But that also means he finished below second 45 out of 76 times. And that’s the man who won more than anyone.
There are no cheap wins in golf, certainly not in the tournaments Tiger Woods plays. In tennis, you might get an easy bracket, your toughest opponent might withdraw with a hamstring injury, something strange might happen. But in golf, somebody is going to shoot a terrific score for the conditions. To win, you have to beat that score.
This makes what Tiger Woods has done — from 1999-to-2008, 10 years, he won 13 of the 38 majors he entered, and 58 of the 173 PGA tournaments he entered — beyond legendary. But people cannot possibly expect Tiger Woods — at his age, after surgery, after his slog through the tabloids and, mostly, after his golf swing confusion — to become that player again.
But many people do. There’s something about him that makes us think that. Nobody thinks Roger Federer is going to become the dominant force in tennis again. But people do think Tiger can (or will). Even I think that. As I write these words, a part of me is shouting “Come on, you’re not REALLY writing off Tiger Woods.” And I’m not. I think he is too mentally strong, too competitive, too knowledgeable to just disappear from the landscape. I don’t see him going dry like Arnold Palmer (who won his last major at 34) or Tom Watson (who won his last major at 33) or Nick Faldo (who won one major after he turned 35). I think he will have great moments yet.
But I think he is going to enter a new phase, where he will contend occasionally, like other golfers. He is going to enter a phase where it will be difficult to play well for four rounds. He is going to enter a phase where those 10 foot putts that were automatic will not be automatic anymore. I think things have changed for Tiger Woods, and they’re not going back. You can’t ever go back. And I don’t know how he is going to handle that. Nobody knows how he will handle it. Over the weekend, on one of his favorite courses, he looked lost. His swing was off. His short game was off. His putting was off. Yes, it was just his first tournament, but Tiger has always done really well in his first tournament — this was part of his game, he was always more ready to go when the seasons began than anyone else.
Anyway, what was as striking as anything was how uninterested he looked. I have never seen an athlete more laser focused than Tiger Woods. This was his greatest gift. He was locked in, all the time, it never stopped, on the course or off. He was driven to be the greatest golfer who ever lived, and every putt was to save the earth, and every shot was time stamped for history. No matter what question anyone asked him, the answer was: “I’m here to win.” No matter what challenge was thrown at him, the answer was: “I’m here to win.”
Does Tiger Woods still want to win? I have little doubt. Does Tiger Woods want to win in the same way he did four, five, six years ago, when he was young, when he felt healthy, when he was idolized, when his golf swing felt as natural to him as breathing? He came to the 18th hole on Sunday, and he needed to make a putt to shoot a 74, which is a lousy score for Tiger Woods and utterly irrelevant for scoreboard purposes. But it is better than a 75. That has always been the driving force for Tiger Woods. One shot better.
No one but Tiger Woods can know what he was thinking at that moment. All we can know is that he missed the putt, tipped his cap to the crowd, and went to sign his scorecard. “I have some work to do,” he told reporters.