The return of Tiger Woods the great? Be willing to wait

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; D01

Golf galleries from Augusta National to Quail Hollow to the TPC Sawgrass have made it overwhelmingly clear that they want Tiger Woods back -- the old great Tiger, that is.

They have welcomed and encouraged him, while almost never heckling him. He crashed over the winter; few want to see him burn. Most of us, after watching his self-inflicted torments of the past six months, pull for Woods to fix himself and his mighty golf game, too.

So, it's painful to ask the obvious: Even as Woods is trying to put his life back together, is he falling apart as a golfer?

For now, after a 43 on the last nine at Quail Hollow to miss the cut and then the sight of him quitting Sunday at the Players Championship because of a pain in his neck, the short-term answer is plain to see: Yes, of course he is. Tiger, a 43? Woods, quit?

The question has changed: Can Tiger put himself back together?

Given time, very likely. After all, we're talking about golf, where careers last almost forever. Woods has 25 years to fix body, mind and spirit before he's as old as Tom Watson was when he almost won the British Open last summer.

But will Woods ever be the sport's dominant champion again?

That is increasingly coming into doubt. And it's happening at the same general age that former No. 1 players such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Watson saw their eras of supremacy fade, leaving them as adored perennial contenders, but rarely winners of the greatest prizes in their sport.

Woods will have an MRI exam this week to determine if he has a bulging disc that, in a worst-case scenario, might require season-ending surgery.

"That's as angry and frustrated as I've been in a long time," Woods said Monday of his decision to quit mid-round.

Pros quit events on Thursdays and Fridays for injuries. But it's part of golf's unwritten code that players, especially great ones, almost never leave the course in a final round.

It's a measure of Woods's pain, especially the cramping in his neck, that he couldn't continue, even though he won the 2008 U.S. Open playing on a stress-fractured left leg and an almost shredded knee.

On Monday, Woods described how he battled pain in that knee for 10 years before massive surgery. Then, last year, pain in his Achilles' tendon "bugged me all year . . . Now this thing flares up," he said. "I'm getting old, dude."

Woods was joking, smiling, but he's right. Physically, he may have driven himself harder than any golfer. And he's done it since childhood. If anybody has the right to be an old 34, it's Woods. For years in his ferocious workouts, his motto has always been to do "two more" reps after everybody else had collapsed. The reward: 14 major titles. The cost? We may be finding out now.

"I like to spend a lot of time practicing," Woods said. "I'm just not able to practice like I used to."

How many times did Nicklaus say that with his back torments? Sometimes he'd lie in the Masters champions locker room, trying to get his back out of spasm, just so he could go to the first tee.

Will the Tiger Era, from the 1997 Masters to the 2008 Open, go into eclipse? That's about the same number of years that Nicklaus stayed No. 1 in the world rankings system of his time: '65 to '77.

Don't say it can't happen. It's one of golf's oldest themes, just one that we despise. At 34, Woods's age, Arnold Palmer won his fourth Masters. But the next season, Nicklaus took over as the top ranking from him, and Palmer never won another major.

After Nicklaus lost the No. 1 ranking to Watson in '78, he won "just" four more major championships. That's a lot. But if Woods's career follows a similar arc, it may be nip-and-tuck whether he passes Nicklaus's record of 18 majors.

Watson himself fell from the No. 1 perch when he was 33, after a five-year run. Few thought it meaningful at the time. But he won only one more major title. Soon enough, Tom's yips were a match for Jack's bad back. What does golf wear out -- neck, back, knees or nerves? Take your pick.

One of the nasty gifts of age, along with injuries and lessened practice time, is the experience of losing -- unaccustomed in Woods's case. He hashed up all four '09 majors, each a different way, capping his reverse slam with a final-round 75 to blow a lead to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship.

When we look back at his opening 74 at the '09 U.S. Open or his missed cut at the British Open, perhaps Woods was distracted by his disintegrating private life. But a side effect of failure is that competitors grow stronger by seeing you lose.

Emily Dickinson wrote, "I like a look of agony, because I know it's true." But you'd need a heart of titanium to enjoy looking at Woods these days.

"There is a lot going on in my life, period," Woods said. "I'd like to find a harmonious spot, [but it's hard] working on life changes . . . with everybody watching everything you do.

"I've dealt with other things when people said I was pretty much done and came back. . . . All I can do is just fight today."

At the moment, even Woods's strengths may conspire against him. He abhors weakness. And ever since his scandals hit, he seems to have felt particularly guilty toward the game of golf itself, which has provided so much of his sense of identity.

Did he rush back to play in the Masters, practicing too hard too soon and precipitating his neck injury, because he is a narcissist who wanted to silence critics with a glorious victory? Maybe.

But it seems more likely that he told the truth when he explained his quick return to golf by saying, "This is what I'm good at." Acutely aware of everything that he was not good at, Woods wanted to start living his "life of amends" by playing fine golf. Instead, in his haste, he merely succeeded in injuring himself.

Even Monday, Woods was still in a hurry. "I'm trying everything I can to get back as soon as I can," he promised.

Perhaps, he should rethink that. He has spent his life on the golf and glory treadmill, always chasing something -- Nicklaus's record, a billion dollars or fill in the blank.

Now, Woods talks about balance, serenity, harmony and the Buddhist values on which he was raised. But he is still, by his own account, living like a man on fire. This time the thing he's chasing desperately is his old magnificent golf game. Isn't that bad karma?

For a return of the old great Tiger Woods, or some new version of him, as yet uncreated, most of us are more than willing to wait.

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