This column originally stated that Jack Nicklaus won four major tournament championships after the age of 33. He won six after turning 33.
Tiger Woods Is More Intriguing as He Ages, Adjusts
Pre- injury, watching Tiger Woods play golf was like going to a James Bond movie: You knew exactly what would happen, but it didn't spoil your enjoyment of the boat chases, torpedos, avalanches and, of course, the ritual dive into a large body of water in a tuxedo. Seeing Woods hoist a trophy was like seeing the same fireball explode, over and over. The plotline never changed, but you couldn't help but be overawed by the scale and technical brilliance of the stunts.
But so far, Woods's comeback has been a relatively humdrum event. The player who appeared in the CA Championship at Doral yesterday was a less epic and explosive performer than we're used to, and he suffered from the same nagging problem any weekend golfer does, namely, the lip out. As commentator Johnny Miller said, he putted "like normal people." After an eight-month layoff to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Woods missed dozens of putts and seemed frustrated by the slow pace of the whole affair. All of which was a reminder that the injury is a clear demarcation in his competitive life: He's now 33 years old and in the last third of his career, and while he surely has a lot of greatness left, the game may no longer come so easily.
For the first time in a decade, Woods will enter the Masters at Augusta National as something less than the clear-cut favorite. Though he'll certainly be on the short list of contenders, he has some rehab to do if he intends to win the first major championship of the season, judging by how he's performed in the past two weeks. He was beaten by Tim Clark in the second round of a match play tournament in Arizona, and at Doral he was all but out of contention by the weekend as eventual winner Phil Mickelson played as well as he ever has and finished at 19-under-par 269.
"I was just a touch off," Woods said. If he was anyone else, we would congratulate him for a tied-for-ninth finish, but he's not. He's Tiger Woods, and he announced before the event that he felt ready to win. He's dominated the tournament, winning six times and never finishing worse than ninth, and it's not like him to be out of contention. Clearly surgery took a toll, and the comeback will require more time. He's human -- and he's rusty.
There was a secondary, intriguing event at Doral that reminded us Woods is not immortal: He confronted the presence of rising 19-year-old phenom Rory McIlroy, who Woods bluntly admitted could someday supersede him as best in the world. "Hopefully while I'm not around," he said. "Or, while I'm around. Certainly he has the talent. We can all see it." Woods, predicting a teenager could be a future No. 1? He sounded like an old guy once did about him, Jack Nicklaus.
None of this means that Woods is past his prime -- far from it, he claims the knee surgery is allowing him to strike the ball better than he has in years. But what it does mean is that Woods is entering the most interesting phase of his career, the phase in which his knowledge and experience are finally equal to his physical ability, and yet his body will begin to betray him, and the number of victories will inevitably slow. It's a phase that the man Woods is pursuing in the record book, Nicklaus, also experienced and yet in which he played some of his most inspiring golf. Nicklaus won just six of his 18 pro majors after age 33, but among them was his stirring 1986 Masters title at 46.
"You only have so much juice," Nicklaus said of that phase. "You try to keep what you've got left so you can use it when it means the most."
It's also the phase in which we just might get to know and like Woods better, as his perspective broadens. The young Woods was not the warmest champion; he was too much the sheltered prodigy and perfectionist, with a drive that seemed almost socially disabling. He won with a mechanical-seeming energy. Spectators were something to glare at and hurry past. As Golf Digest's Jaime Diaz once wrote, "he freely admits that he can be cheap, stubborn and cold."
But he's become somewhat more expansive in the last couple of years as he dealt with problems from his trick knee, to the loss of a beloved parent, to the juggling of family and work. He's now got two small children with his wife, Elin, and a couple of family dogs, as well as a burgeoning golf course design business. One of his biggest readjustments during Doral, he said, was that he found it hard to concentrate for four solid hours on the course. While he was recuperating he raced through his rounds in a cart. "I didn't think I would be out here this long," he said. "We've been playing at home, two, three guys, 18 holes in an hour and a half. That's a little different than playing out here. Just the pace of play, getting used to all of that; time to think, all of the different things, I had not experienced in eight months."
In addition to recovering his patience, Woods has to regain his feel and focus on the greens. Oddly, the thing that seems most affected by the long layoff is not his swing -- he engages that primary weapon system as powerfully as ever -- but his putting. Woods is an aggressor who likes to jam his short putts into the hole, but when he misfires they have a tendency to rim out. Time after time at Doral he grazed the edges or ran the ball around the lip. The good news was that he was just centimeters away from some low scores. But his trouble was perhaps a glimpse of what to expect when he gets older: Other greats who were nervy, aggressive putters, such as Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, saw their touch desert them in their mid-30s, and struggled to ever make short putts again.
There's still the chance Woods will recapture his form sooner rather than later; he doesn't do anything "like normal people," or even like other greats. But in the meantime, his struggle to regain his place on the leader board is captivating, and makes him as appealing as he's ever been. Who has cared as much about golf since he limped away after last year's U.S. Open? Woods's gigantic talent tends to obscure his smaller, worthier qualities, such as his discipline, and the fact that he deals graciously with competitive disappointments such as Doral.
"It happens, it's part of the game," he said. For all the amazing things Nicklaus did in his career, what do people care about and remember most? That he won the Masters when he was a graying father, with his son on the bag. Unparalleled talent inspires awe. Getting off the mat inspires affection.