Tiger Woods’s words finally caught up with his reality
Used to be, whether he was limping down the fairway or spraying balls off it, Tiger Woods would sit before an expectant media corps before each and every event he played – even in the seven-and-a-half years since he last won a major championship – and proclaim himself confident in the process, optimistic about the eventual results, evidence be damned. He was by nature defiant, and it made even the most pessimistic observers remember his heyday, which somehow didn’t seem seven years ago, and think that he might one day will the ball into the hole again and again and again.“The confidence is growing quickly,” he said last August at Whistling Straits. Whether it was a mask or not, we’ll never know. What we are sure of: After those two rounds at the PGA Championship, when his confidence was “growing quickly,” he missed the cut for the fourth time in his past five majors.Cast against all we have seen and all we know, listening to Woods speak Tuesday in the Bahamas, where he is hosting but not playing in the Hero World Challenge, was simply staggering. Defiance has been replaced by resignation. It took years for him to get to that point. But there it was, starkly laid out.
Listen, on his career: “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”Listen, on when he might next play competitively: “There is no timetable. So that’s the hardest part. … There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards.”Listen, on his overall outlook: “So where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t know.”The man who has defined golf over the past two decades, who took the sport to places it never imagined, finally acknowledged the reality those in golf have been observing over the past two-plus years. His career could well be over. And if that’s the case, he has to be able to cherish his 14 majors. He has to figure out a way to be okay with not reaching Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18, the goal he had on his wall above his bed since he was a kid. He wants to compete and kick tail and take names again, but …“If that’s not the case anymore, then I’ll find other avenues.”Right now, his avenues include video games – he has long dabbled in the online shoot-’em-up military versions, taking on anonymous competitors around the Web. They include dropping his two kids at school and picking them up afterward. Other than that?He turns 40 this month, but physically he is an old man. His back is no longer functional enough to allow him to be an elite athlete. It is no longer functional enough for him to live a normal life. He has undergone three procedures on the same area in the last 18 months. As he stumbled through another season filled with fits and starts – including an embarrassing inability to execute simple chip shots and periods during which each swing brought with it the possibility of calamity rather than brilliance – he took time off to get his game back in a form suitable for public consumption.But he still had pain in his hip, he said, pain that turned out to be tied to nerve issues in his back. Results that once would have been shocking became three-paragraph entries in golf-tournament coverage: “Tiger Woods shot X over par and is in danger of missing another cut.” Over the past two seasons, Woods played 18 events, posted one top-10 finish, missed six cuts and withdrew three times. This from the man who once made the cut every single event, 142 times in a row, a record.Each time, when he spoke before flying home, there was the possibility that he might allow that his confidence was flagging because his body was failing. Each time, he chose defiance. At last year’s version of the Hero World Challenge, which was played at his former home course of Isleworth outside Orlando, several chips were unsightly and amateurish. He finished 18th in an 18-man field, 26 shots behind winner Jordan Spieth. His analysis afterward: “Again, it’s progress.”This is why Tuesday’s tone and Tuesday’s words and Tuesday’s admissions amount to a significant turning point for Woods and for golf. Though Woods could always point out that, in 2013, he won five times in 16 starts, we always knew what we were seeing: the sunset approaching more rapidly than anyone really wanted. In nine of the past 19 majors, Woods has either failed to start because of health or failed to play the weekend because of performance. This wasn’t a blip. It wasn’t part of the process. It was his reality.Tuesday, Woods finally, publicly, made his assessment match the reality. In doing so, he was able to be something that hasn’t come easily to him, at least publicly. He was able to be reflective.“I’ve passed Jack on the all-time win list,” he said, noting he has 79 PGA Tour victories, six more than Nicklaus, three shy of Sam Snead. “I’m just shy of Sam. I passed Sam basically a decade ago in major championships, but I’m still shy of Jack’s [record 18]. So I’ve had a pretty good career from my 20s and 30s. For my 20 years out here, I think I’ve achieved a lot.“If that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run.”It was, of course, better than that. But this week is not about quibbling over whose career is the best ever. It is about taking the present tense and turning it into past, from being in the midst of a good run to recognizing it has gone by. Years ago, we were used to Tiger Woods stunning us with his play. Tuesday, he stunned not just with his words, but with his acknowledgment of reality.