It’s the constant quest to heal that is so alternately moving and frustrating in the story of Tiger Woods’s career over the past few years. The continual effort to be a great player for a long period has been accompanied by such an obvious price, both physically and emotionally; the personal crackup and the physical surgeries were the inevitable toll of a prodigy who became a star. And now there will have to be another convalescence, another long walk back to wellness.
All you could think, after seeing the picture of that crushed, rolled-over vehicle, was thank God he’s alive. But after the relief, what came was despondence for him, that he has to undergo it all again, the knife and the small steps and the ceaseless questions, with the world watching and asking him for another comeback, but not really understanding what it takes from him and out of him.
He’s had more than 10 surgeries in all now — and he’s just 45. He’s 45, and as he told Jim Nantz in that hurt-sounding interview Sunday, he’s adopted a longer putter so “I don’t have to bend over as far.” Five times surgeons have cut on his left knee, five times they’ve gone into his back to dig out pieces of him, and Tuesday, according to his agent, a surgeon worked to repair injuries to his legs from the single-car wreck in the Los Angeles scrub. “Sick to my stomach,” is how golfer Justin Thomas said he felt when he heard, and the sentiment was surely universal.
The worst part was that even before the wreck Woods sounded so tired of the pain. “I don’t know what the plan is,” he told Nantz, seeming dispirited over yet another microdiscectomy surgery on his back. Asked if he could make it to the Masters, he replied: “God, I hope so, but I’ve got to get there first. I got to get there first. A lot of it is based on my surgeons and my doctors and my therapists and making sure I do it correctly, because this is the only back I got.”
Ever had a bad back or a hurt knee? The pain can go from your heels to the crown of your head and into the roots of your teeth. And make it impossible to pick up your own kid, much less a golf bag. Then there are the wearying psychic injuries he’s dealt with: the combination of entitlement and a robbed childhood; a case of chronic insomnia; the exciting microwave effect of attention and yet the searing boil of it; the car wreck and dissolution of his marriage in 2009; and the inability to do any work on himself, to have a problem, without becoming global discussion.
Woods spent a lot of years as a great champion and not an especially pleasant or self-aware guy, one whose enablers were still calling him “kid” at 34. But it was a pleasure to see him so fully healed, matured and exultant when he won the Masters in 2019 and grasped so close the two children who clearly adore him and give him meaning. It was a scene you hoped could be repeated. At this point, though, you just want him to be able to stand up straight again and enjoy his life and family with a sound body and spirit.
And maybe this time no one needs to ask him for another comeback, another big feat. His identity from his formative years onward has been wrapped up in outward success, outward trophy display. Genius isn’t a free gift — it’s a double-edged one that can sucker a man into an unhelpful projection of invincibility. If it’s rewarding, it is also exhausting to carry on such pretense in front of millions, to be unable to show how you may be buckling and warping under the pressure of living up to it.
Great talent is not an end run around pressure. On the contrary. Nobody has ever summed up the special burden of being a great player more insightfully than baseball agent Scott Boras. Last year on a podcast with Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, Boras discussed the hidden complications of trying to help players cope with great talent. “They know it, they feel it, they have expectations, and then they have a dedication to it,” Boras observed. “And often they have an edge, and that edge causes really a lot of issues in their lives. … Because there is fear that goes with it, and the greatest fear is: ‘I have got to be what I should be. I’ve got to be that guy that I should be.’ And it wears them out. Because once they have the great season, the most difficult season is always the next season, because the expectation, the ease of their performance and the brilliance that the fans see, it’s like they should be able to give it and give it every day. And there is almost an internal anger about what they have to go through to repeat that greatness.”
For that rare creature who has been trying to repeat that greatness since they were a child, there is a sense of remoteness, a cut-offness, an inability to find similar experience or sympathy from others, that only exacerbates the pressure of the joint-crumpling grind. “They see the cars and the plane, and if they don’t try, they stop there,” Andre Agassi once told me years ago about being a prodigy. “And it’s scary to be defined and judged that way. You just want to be seen for who you are.” There are times when the whole thing makes you feel no more real than your last highlight clip. “Like I’ve been edited in,” observed Agassi, who wound up with his own back and psychic injuries.
No wonder Woods sounded tired. Small wonder he drove fast.
There is more unknown than known about what caused the accident and what the extent of Woods’s injuries are. But what’s certain is that Woods will have to put his greatness down, at least for a while, while he heals yet again. May he make this long, slow, mending walk at his own quiet pace, without obligation or burden of reputation, back to blessed health.
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Timeline: Injuries and pain have plagued Tiger Woods throughout his record-setting career, at times keeping him out of competition for long stretches. Here is a look back at his decorated career and his long injury history.
Candace Buckner: “Now, as Woods makes a hero’s return to the spotlight, he’s allowing those questions to linger under a cloud of silence. Everything about that day, he says, has been answered in the police report. Except it hasn’t.”
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