You probably have heard: Tiger Woods withdrew again. It is, best I can tell, the seventh time he has withdrawn in the middle of a golf tournament since he turned 35 years old. This was one of the weirder ones because of the way it played out.
1. Woods goes all the way to Dubai to play, talking excitedly about still feeling healthy after playing (and missing the cut) at the Farmers Insurance Open last week.
2. In Dubai, Woods talks about how he doesn’t care what his swing looks like because he’s finally pain-free. Finally. Pain-free.
3. Woods plays horribly in the first round and looks like he is in agony, grimacing in seeming pain throughout. If this is what pain-free looks like …
4. But Woods makes clear after the round that, no, absolutely not, he felt no pain at all. He just played lousy. The grimaces were not grimaces … or they were just reactions to hitting bad shots … or something.
5. Next morning: Woods withdraws because of back spasms that his agent, Mark Steinberg, says didn’t happen until “fairly late last night after dinner.”
“Felt OK coming off the golf course yesterday,” Steinberg told reporters. “So he wasn’t in pain.”
Sure he wasn’t. Look, at this point, it doesn’t matter what Tiger Woods says to us. It probably never did. Woods deeply believes in the philosophy of exhibiting invulnerability — he seems certain that much of his golfing aura comes from everybody thinking that he’s invincible. He seems certain that any sign of weakness or fragility would embolden his competitors. I don’t buy it but, hey, I also didn’t win a U.S. Open on one leg.
And even if I DID buy it, well, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news but, um, we all kind of know that Tiger isn’t invincible.
Anyway, all of that probably misses the point. It doesn’t matter what Tiger Woods says to us. If he wants us to think that those were faux grimaces on the golf course, and that he felt just peachy until late last night when, out of nowhere, unexpectedly, back spasms took hold, well, hey, we can do that for him. We can pretend for a great athlete.
The real question is: What is Tiger Woods saying to himself?
To me, this has been the real question all along, the one that Woods would never reveal, perhaps not even to his closest friends. Golf, more than any other sport, is supposed to offer its legends a graceful path into AARP. Football is cruel once you’ve lost that first step, baseball sends fastballs rushing by, basketball mocks the player’s surrender to gravity. But golf, well, a great golfer can still show up in his 40s, maybe even win a tournament now and again, and at 50 he is given the keys to a whole new tour with old friends and easier golf courses lined with adoring fans who remember the good old days.
None of us really thought much about how Tiger would take to this sunset half of his career. He was too busy conquering and we were too busy watching in awe. “Here to win,” he would say every single week, even when he didn’t actually say the words, and he did win many of those weeks, and he piled up green jackets and Wanamaker trophies and Nike commercials and player of the year awards and something close to a billion dollars when it’s all added up.
And during those years — even the first few years after his romp through the tabloids — there was no need to ask his motivation. Win. That’s it. Everything he did in both his public and private life, the good and the not-so-good, the charitable and the self-centered, all of it fed off that single word. Win.
There was no reason to ask: What happens when you CAN’T win anymore? That day seemed so far away. In 2010, I wrote for the first time that I didn’t think Tiger Woods would break Jack Nicklaus’ major record. At that time, I put up a poll; only 3% of people clicked that Woods would “definitely not” break Nicklaus’ record, and more than three-quarters thought he would break the record. I don’t bring it up to say I was right — I was just throwing darts in the dark like everyone else plus I WANTED to be wrong — but to say that the very idea of Tiger Woods aging like a normal person did not compute for most people.
In 2011, Woods started having the injuries that would become so familiar. In 2012 and 2013, he flashed some of his old brilliance, winning eight times, making it back to No. 1 in the world for a time, though he did not win a major. And then it was over.
Do you know how many times Tiger Woods has finished Top 10 in a tournament, any tournament, since the beginning of the 2014 season? Once.
As in … once.
Hope is, by its very nature, flexible and insistent, and so fans have always held out hope for Tiger Woods. Every positive sign, every pain-free swing, every optimistic statement, every reassuring quote, every decent round has spurred ebullient “TIGER IS BACK!” headlines and whoops. But, yes, that makes it about us again.
What about him? Has he felt that same hope? There seems little doubt that at some point in his more than three-year odyssey to find a swing that didn’t hurt, Woods must have believed he could become great again. He had been a great golfer for so long that it must have felt like the natural state of the world.
But what about now? Starting a year or so ago, Woods’ comments became significantly more muted. He began talking about how he’d had a great career and anything beyond would be a bonus. He did not enter any of the grand slam tournaments last year — it is heartbreaking to realize that Woods has not made a cut at a major championship since the 2015 Masters — and he withdrew three days prior to a tournament last October because his “game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”
You have to believe that Woods has stared face-to-face with the obvious — he might never win again. He might never contend again. Heck, he might never be healthy enough to PLAY with any regularity again.
And now that he has stared the obvious in the face, what does he do? What does he tell himself? Does he stubbornly fight against the obvious? Does he look to beat the odds? Does he believe the odds can be beaten? Does he continue to tell himself that he can be great again? Does he go to the practice range for hours and hours every day fashioning a swing that can hold up not only under tournament pressure but also under the strain of a balky back? And even if he wants to: Can he?
These are not questions Tiger Woods is likely to answer. They are the most personal questions any of us can ask ourselves, questions about mortality, and through the years Woods has shown that he doesn’t even want to tell us his favorite breakfast cereal. We fans and observers didn’t learn anything in Dubai that wasn’t already plain: Tiger Woods isn’t healthy and he never will be. He’s 41. He’s had multiple back surgeries. Of course he’s not healthy. Louis CK does a great bit about how when you go to the doctor at 40, they stop trying to fix things. “They go, ‘Yeah that tends to happen,'” he says. Woods will never be healthy.
So what happens? Well, he might work through the pain. He might keep showing up at tournaments, gritting his teeth, withdrawing. He might find some combination of medication and exercise and weight training and biomechanics so that he can play through. How good a golfer can he be doing that? I don’t know. That’s the question Tiger Woods must be asking himself now.
More, while Tiger Woods Inc. puts out positive public statements about his health and tells us that he doesn’t feel the grimaces we see, he has to be asking himself the hardest question of all: Is it worth it?