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EVERY TIME TIGER LIMPS, HOPS AND WINCES, RETIREMENT IS BECKONING
The 19th hole is nearing for the man who has experienced the best and worst as a legend, but finality can’t arrive until Woods — in perpetual pain at 47 — charts a course for a non-competitive future
Safe to say, Tiger Woods will not make more impact on Earth than Mandela, Gandhi or Buddha. His father, the Earl of Woods, once voiced that mountainous forecast, which didn’t help as his son thrashed machetes through the jungles of an intensely public life. From that day in 1996 when he Big Bertha-bombed his way into the global consciousness — “I guess, hello world, huh?” he told us in Milwaukee — we’ve been staring at him, sometimes sideways.
Now, going on three decades of the best and worst that an elite sportsman can experience in life, Woods isn’t just on the back nine of his career. He’s on the final green, looking warily at another putt, a challenge he once conquered with fist-pumping panache but these days is much likelier to leave short or long, followed by a deep sigh and a glance upward to uncooperative heavens. We saw this scene early and often Thursday at Augusta National, where he has claimed five green jackets but now perspires in a white shirt while limping through torturous grimaces.
He has played the most supreme golf ever played. He has experienced more calamity than any athlete of his stature — scandals and opioid dependency, a death-defying SUV crash and too many back and leg surgeries to count. He will not win another major championship, cemented for posterity at 15, three behind Jack Nicklaus, and he inarguably should have retired after his last one, fittingly at the Masters four years ago. Absorbing the entirety of his work, it can be said today that he has reached a reckoning that every legend faces. Only, his seems most obvious in the physical pain and mental anguish etched on his face, every time he overworks a right leg nearly amputated two years ago.
“I don’t know how many more I have in me,” he said this week, suggesting this excursion to Georgia will be his last as a serious competitor. “Mobility, it’s not where I would like it. I’m very lucky to have this leg — it’s mine. Yes, it has been altered and there’s some hardware in there, but it’s still mine. It has been tough and will always be tough. The ability and endurance of what my leg will do going forward will never be the same. I understand that.
“That’s why I can’t prepare and play as many tournaments as I like, but that’s my future, and that’s OK. I’m OK with that. I just have to be cognizant of how much I can push it. I can hit a lot of shots but the difficulty for me is going to be the walking going forward. I wish it could be easier.”
He then acknowledged surprise that he’s still playing at the Masters, for the 25th time, knowing he’s lucky to be alive after his crash at 85 mph on a winding back road in his native southern California. Of his improbable return last year, he said, “I didn’t know if I was going to play again at that time. For some reason, everything came together and I pushed it a little bit.”
So why keep pushing? Does he really want to hobble through rounds at 47, knowing he can’t win when Scottie Scheffler is 26 and Jon Rahm is 28 and Rory McIlroy is still 33? Is he in it just to survive 18 holes, without collapsing in a fairway heap? If this feels like living hell from outside the ropes, what is Tiger feeling? Is he one missed cut from becoming what seems incongruous, almost impossible when remembering his greatest hits: an afterworld as a ceremonial golfer? Such was the vibe during his 2-over-par round of 74, already leaving him nine shots behind leaders Rahm, Viktor Hovland and — LIV alert! Party in Saudi Arabia! Drinks on Greg Norman! — Brooks Koepka. Applause from the patrons was as warm for Woods as the day itself, but it came from a place of career achievement, not the long-ago anticipation that he can contend on Sunday.
The takeaway came on No. 18, when he was forced to plant his foot on his surgically repaired leg into the sand of a fairway bunker. When he blasted out, he hopped gingerly on his left foot and watched the ball shoot into a greenside bunker. “Hopping on the left leg is fine,” he said, “but if I did it on the other one, not so fine.” As it was, he was forced to stretch and wince in the tee box, after a long day, and to see him reduced to such gimpy desperation made me wonder if the whole exercise was pointless. What if he misses the Masters cut for only the second time, his first as a pro? Won’t the world be asking what I’m asking?
How much longer, Tiger?
“Today was the opportune time to get the round under par, and I didn’t do that,” he said, referring to impending foul weather. “Most of the guys are going low today. This was the day to do it. Hopefully, tomorrow, I’ll be a little bit sharper and kind of inch my way through it.”
Inch your way through? This is not Tiger Woods, the savage warrior of the aughts. How is the pain in the leg?
“It’s constant,” he said.
In general, how does he feel? “Sore,” he said. His caddie, Joe LaCava, said he can’t fathom Woods finishing 27-plus holes in a single day if rain downpours demand. He adds that his guy would contend if he could ride a cart. The rules of golf don’t allow it, nor should they.
At least Tiger is able to crack wise, no longer the angry-child perfectionist, embracing gratitude amid a drastically reduced schedule over the last year — 12 rounds in five tournaments, including Thursday. After a practice session with pal Fred Couples, 63, Woods smiled and said, “I’ve got three more years from where I’ll get the little buggy and be out there with Fred.”
Any month now, sooner than later, he’ll have to look in a mirror and realize that his given name is Eldrick, and that life goes on for every human, even him. What will he do next? He’ll be a father first, to 15-year-old Sam and 14-year-old Charlie. For now, he’s also a plaintiff in two lawsuits related to his breakup with ex-girlfriend/housemate Erica Herman, who contends he broke an oral tenancy agreement In Jupiter, Fla. — also the site of his wee-hours DUI years ago, when he was wired on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. He’ll be a U.S. Ryder Cup captain sometime soon. He can name his TV network as an analyst, if he wants. Hopefully, the verbal burden of his late father isn’t ringing in his ears.
“Tiger,” Earl Woods said 27 years ago, “will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.”
When acclaimed author Gary Smith followed by asking if Tiger will do more than “Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, more than Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe,” Earl shot back, “More than any of them because he’s more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anyone.”
And when Smith invoked Mandela, Gandhi and the Buddha, Earl said, “Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he's playing a sport that's international. Because he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He's the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."
Turns out he was simply the greatest golfer we’ve ever seen, one who knee-capped and shamed Augusta National’s white good-old-boy establishment in 1997 and never looked back on courses worldwide. Politics never have been in his purview. He has steadfastly refused to take social stands — much like his iconic contemporary, Michael Jordan — long before Donald Trump’s hostile presidency. It wasn’t long ago when Woods refused to distance himself from Trump, upsetting many of his fans, explaining, “Well, I’ve known Donald for a number of years. We’ve played golf together. We’ve had dinner together. I’ve known him pre-presidency and obviously during his presidency.”
In that context, he’s the polar opposite of LeBron James and other activists of color. “Well, he’s the president of the United States,” Woods said of Trump then. “You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”
What he deserves most, in an unstable America, is a blueprint to tranquility, stability and meaningful leadership. He can’t achieve any of it until he removes the golf shoes for good, until he stops trying to tempt fate when, cruelly, it was sealed when he almost lost his life in a ditch. He recently spoke to the Wall Street Journal about his enjoyment in designing smaller courses. “The par-3 courses I grew up on were short and lighted at night,” he said. “You would get people with six clubs and a six-pack and they’d really enjoy themselves. It was quick and fun. That’s what stuck with me.”
Sounds like a plan. As great ones depart the grand stage in unison, Tom Brady has a plan, Serena Williams has a plan, and LeBron will have one in due time. Their transitions won’t be easy, because they rarely are. But somehow, Tiger Woods is the one who should stare into a sunset and ponder what he’ll do with the rest of his life. Playing golf is all he has known since he was on TV at age 3, and, as his ravaged body knows, the Georgia hills no longer are sympathetic.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.