By In Stuff

Tiger Again

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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 It is, best I can tell, the seventh time he has withdrawn in the middle of a golf tournament since he turned 35 years old.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?

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38 Responses to Tiger Again

  1. tarhoosier says:

    No

  2. Kevin Fitzgerald says:

    I wonder if he gets to keep his appearance fee after the withdrawal. I agree with each and every one of Joe’s sentiments, but let’s not lose sight of why Tiger is in Dubai this week. Big fat check for just showing up. Health and high water, etc.

  3. invitro says:

    I’m not sure why so many people seem to be in such agony over Tiger’s pretty much normal decline. Well, I don’t know much about the PGA… but I used to play a ton of golf, and I’ve watched a hell of a lot of golf majors on TV, including a pile of Tiger’s, and I’m glad I did. Quite a few of them, especially that one-legged US Open, were downright inspiring and made me feel a little more excited about tackling the upcoming work/school week. I’d rather remember those old majors, and watch the new players, than cry in my beer that Tiger won’t be winning any more majors. I guess I don’t get much of the sadness about players getting old. Maybe if they’re an all-time great and retire without winning a championship, that can be a little sad. But Tiger? C’mon… he’s done plenty of winning. It’s like being sad that Bill Gates is going to have to settle for having $10 billion and never getting to that $20 billion level.

    • Matt says:

      Gates’ net worth is more like $90B, so, yeah, really no need to worry about him not hitting that $20B level.

      http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-businessmen/richest-billionaires/bill-gates-net-worth/

    • SDG says:

      Because when our youthful idols get old, it reminds us that we’re getting old. People no longer find us attractive. Businesses don’t market to us any more. The world becomes increasingly strange, the modes of expression and aesthetics and cultural signifiers that were those of the culture around us become seen as outdated, mocked, and then ignored. It becomes more and more apparent, for most of us, we will neve realize our youthful dreams. We’ve hit the peak.

      And then we die, to be forgotten forever, as though we never existed. It’s pretty sad, so we don’t like thinking about it.

      Tiger, or any marquee athlete, represents that.

      • invitro says:

        I definitely get that getting old is mostly a bummer, especially if one hasn’t accomplished much with one’s life. But I don’t know if it has to be that way. I wonder if there might be some choice involved, and if weeping over old athletes might be a bad choice, as opposed to celebrating what great things they’ve done. I don’t know… maybe getting adult dreams to replace the youthful dreams is a good idea, too…? Like, no one’s too old to write a great book, or be a great teacher, or be a great friend. 🙂

        • SDG says:

          Oh I’m not disagreeing that weeping over aging athletes is unproductive and irrational. But so is all of it, really. Identifying with a particular athlete or team at all is irrational, but we do it anyway.

          Some athletes (or some actors or musicians or whatever) become icons. They are famous outside their sport and are recognized in such a way that goes beyond an appreciation for their talents. (Like how Mickey Mantle wasn’t just a great hitter but “the All-American Boy”). People identify with them, and a lot of it has to do with a particular moment in time, when the world was a particular way and you were on top. I’m certainly not advocating people should just give up on life, because Tiger Woods got old or for any other reason.

          You know those dumb “Want to feel old? College kids are too young to remember 9/11” things everyone posts on facebook? Why are there so many of those things floating around and why do people seek them out? Our deep fear of aging, becoming irrelevant and dying. Tiger is tied up in that for some people.

      • Donald A. Coffin says:

        I dunno. I admittedly don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do I for damn sure see a lot of commercials aimed at people my age (or a little younger)–prescription drugs. And more drugs. And nutritional supplements. And pads or patches that’ll fix my aching back…

    • Bpdelia says:

      Gates has blown way past 20 billion. He’s one of the wealtiest humans ever. But agreed. I hate nostalgia. Nothing ages you faster than nostalgia.

  4. 18chances says:

    to invitro: I think it’s sad because it was excellence and dominance at a level that has never been seen and never again will be seen in the game, and it came crashing down in a narrative flow fitting Aristotelian tragedy.
    Great essay Mr. Posnanski

    • SDG says:

      How is it Aristotelian tragedy? Every athlete (unless they retire at the top like Koufax) gets old and declines. Conditioning and changing your style of play can delay that moment, but it’s going to happen. I’m not a golf fan so what do I know but this seems very, very normal.

      • invitro says:

        The tragedy probably refers to the big sex scandal. (I’m not sure what Aristotelian means so I’m not commenting on that.)

  5. Bryan says:

    Tiger is 18 years younger than when Tom Watson lost a 4-hole playoff at the 2009 British Open. At 41 Watson tied for 26th at the British and then missed 7 cuts, didn’t play 3 times and his best finishes in his 40s were tied for 10th and 11th. In his 50s his second best result was tied for 18th and 3rd best tied for 41st.
    Watson wins his 8th and last PGA major before he turns 34 and you could have written that “following the normal aging curve I don’t expect Watson to win 10 majors” in 1984 and since he’s 67 now it seems really likely that’s correct but that’s nothing more than a guess with the comfort of knowing that if they awarded majors by pulling a name out of a hat that Tom Watson most likely doesn’t win the 2009 British since it had 144 entrants. Guessing that Tom won’t have his name picked twice for the rest of his career is a pretty safe bet, it just lacks much insight.
    I don’t think Bubba Watson (Age 38), Martin Kaymer (Age 32), Phil Mickelson (Age 46), Rory McIlroy (Age 27) or Jordan Spieth (Age 23) will win a major in 2017. Those are all the players who have won 2 or more majors since 2010. I’m not even really betting against those players, I’m just betting for the hundreds of golfers who might win instead.

    • MikeN says:

      4 hole playoff? It was a single excited swing! He was leading going to the last hole, so as long as he is on the green with his approach shot he wins.

    • KHAZAD says:

      That Watson thing was incredible, and I was rooting for him, because it would have been singular feat, but Tiger is done winning majors. My only hope is for him to be competitive again someday. Here is the complete list of major championships won 20 years or more after winning their first one. (And it has been 20 years for Tiger now)

      Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters and …….. that’s it. That’s the entire list.

    • Tom Esselman says:

      Love that you brought up Watson. Woods, at his current age, has a greater chance of being in the same position Watson was in 7 and 1/2 years ago, than any other golfer his age by a long shot. And multiple times at that. I’m still among the 97% who were certain that Woods will break Nicklaus’s record

  6. Rob Smith says:

    I was a runner and a triathlete. In my late 30s, I found that I had to ice my whole body after every workout. This process took at least an hour. Every day. At 40, I entered an event that I’d run many times. It was a 24 hour relay event on the streets. I would run about 3 legs for about 6 miles each within that 24 hour period. It’s tough, but the really tough part is the training. And I had so many starts and stops that year. I’d start getting up to speed and then I’d hurt my knee. Sit out for two weaks, put a wrap on the knee, get up to speed, then it was my hips…. then a week before the event, I got plantar fasciitis. That is EXTREMELY painful. I bought a heal pad & hoped for the best. I ran the race. Every time I got a handoff, I was unsure whether I would be able to run 10 feet. I was slow, but I ran every inch of every leg. And I retired on the spot. It’s just no fun having nagging injuries. They don’t go away after age 40. In fact, they have a tendency to multiply.

    Basketball was worse. Not only did I get injured a lot (hard wood courts are tough on the body), but at age 35 I became a complete joke. I could no longer run fast or jump high, so I looked terrible. I was a really good defensive player who could no longer play defense against anyone. My teammates took to kind of looking me with a semi-disgusted look after every terrible play. That was the end of that. Every sport has it’s end time. At the professional level, it comes sooner, because you are competing not only with your body, but other younger professionals. It’s just that time for Tiger, as much as we might hope otherwise. He’s basically been injured for three years straight, plus. You don’t recover from that. You just get more injuries.

  7. Corey says:

    Besides the health question, I’ve wondered this entire Tiger down time how he can possibly enjoy playing the game again when he knows – and has acknowledged – that he will NEVER play the way he did again. How can it possibly be satisfying? I’m no Michael Jordan, but I quit basketball when I couldn’t play the way I once did – and so did Michael Jordan. I’m close to the end of my golf playing career because of a similar standard. I know golf is what defines him, but I just can’t imagine the joy and drive every being the same when you’re eternally chasing a ghost of yourself – and always will be. Phil can still play like Phil and so he does and loves it. Tiger will never play like Tiger again. How much fun can that be?

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think it depends on whether you get satisfaction out of the game itself or just out of being successful. Probably not a great analogy, but I think Roger Federer just loves playing tennis, whether or not he is as good as he used to be. Obviously, he is much better at this point in his career than Tiger, but I think he gets pleasure out of playing even if he isn’t the player he used to be-and, in general, he isn’t despite the Australian Open. Tiger, I suspect, is simply driven by the idea that he has to try to regain at least some of what he lost. Part of the problem is that it all fell apart so quickly. It wasn’t like Nicklaus or Watson who dominated for awhile and slowly fell off. Tiger was at the top and, then, suddenly wasn’t even competitive. It’s hard to accept that you can go from being the best to being terrible so quickly. Plus, perhaps his off-course life has something to do with it; that feel apart too and maybe golf is his way of keeping those demons at bay.

      • SDG says:

        But even if you get satisfaction just out of playing, it has to kill you that you can’t play the game the way you used to. The satisfaction of utterly dominating, of being the best, of pushing yourself to the top is very different from the enjoyment of playing a round with your buddies. If it’s about love of the game, Tiger, who is very very rich, could retire from competition and spend the rest of his life playing golf for fun on the best courses in the world. But he’s not doing that. He’s competing professionally.

        I don’t know anything about his private life except he cheated on his wife with 100 different cocktail waitresses, many of whom like speaking to the tabloids. I assume he’s still engaged in that particular hobby.

        • invitro says:

          There’s gotta be some guys here who can speak from experience on that. I played in the world pinball championships from about 1995 through 2003… I wasn’t a top-level player, but I made the playoffs in the B division several times, was forced to play in the top division twice, made some decent cash and prizes… I was in the top 100 players in the world, anyway. Then I wasn’t able to go any more, then pinball disappeared from the places where I lived, and now it’s 14 years later and I’m dying to get some practice and try again. Anyway… I did play in a little local tournament a year ago and did horribly. The effect on me was not to kill me or depress me, but rather to get an intense desire to find a way to practice and get back into competition. Anyway, it’s just me and just one story, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Tiger believed that if he did certain things, he could get back in top condition. I wouldn’t be surprised either if he was right, but those things may be a lot harder to do now then they were earlier.

          • Karyn says:

            I can see that. Knowing that you were once that good, knowing that you have the work ethic and the self discipline to work any program–it must be so tempting to think ‘If I can just find the right combination of stretches, exercises, rest days–the exact right swing I can duplicate every time that won’t aggravate my back, the right diet to keep me strong and my weight down, this that, the other thing . . .’

        • Marc Schneider says:

          Well, at that level, just playing nice course isn’t going to be much of a substitute. It’s the competition that he would miss as much as anything.

    • MikeN says:

      He has come close to winning a few times, appearing on Sunday leaderboards. So he probably thinks 18 is still possible.

  8. MikeN says:

    Hitting the golf ball at full force is sending pain all through his body.
    Here’s my question, in California they have earthquake proofing, including buildings that are built to wobble, but can better withstand earthquake forces. Basically the building is built on stilts with a ball in them on which the structure can vibrate.
    Why can’t they do that with golf, have a shock absorber in the glove?

  9. DeadCenterPerfect says:

    I’ve seen that bit by Louis CK. After the part you mentioned he says to the doctor (paraphrasing), “Hey, you can fix that elbow stuff with pitchers and athletes, right?” “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen for you.”
    I guess even the athlete can’t come back sometimes.

  10. Robert says:

    Tiger Woods was one of the great athletes of his generation, a man who utterly dominated his sport and changed the way it operated. His legacy is cast in stone and will not go away. If he wishes to fight against the obvious, that’s a privilege he has earned. He deserves continued respect in his struggle. All of us age, eventually. The thing is to do it with dignity. I hope he does.

  11. Prince Rupert says:

    If Tiger Woods were playing any other sport, people would have seen and acknowledged a long time ago that he was no longer young, and that his window of opportunity was closing.

    We all know that a 29 year old running back is nearing the end, and probably won’t win any more rushing titles. We all know a 34 year old center fielder shouldn’t get a big, six year contract.

    But golf? We all think of it as Grandpa’s game. So, many of us looked at Eldrick Woods, a 36 year old man with bad knees and a bad back, and thought “There’s no reason he can’t dominate for another 15 years.”

    People just don’t think of golfers as athletes or of golf as a real sport. There are so many Craig Stadlers, Angel Cabreras and John Dalys out there that we forget how physically gifted top golfers have to be.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think of golf as a real sport. But, realistically, it’s not as physically taxing as football, baseball, basketball, or, for that matter, tennis. You can simply play at a higher level for longer than most sports. Nicklaus won the Masters at 46; Tom Watson almost won the British Open at 59. Phil Mickelson is still a threat in his 40s, albeit less than he was. Most golfers are still at least competitive in their early 40s.A tennis player isn’t going to win Wimbledon in his 40s. Obviously, though, the way that Tiger played put much more stress on his body than other golfers.

  12. Mort says:

    When you think that you’ve lost everything
    You find out you can always lose a little more
    I’m just going down the road feeling bad
    Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.

    Bob Dylan

  13. Pete R says:

    “it is heartbreaking to realize that Woods has not made a cut at a major championship since the 2015 Masters”.
    .
    Well, he hasn’t made a cut at anything since August 2015. Although to be fair, he did enter one tournament that didn’t have a cut.
    .
    By the way, do you know which of these two players won a tournament more recently: Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson?

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