Now, in the wake of Woods’s horrifying single-car accident Tuesday, golf faces a new binary existence: the Tiger Era and the foggy abyss that comes when he’s done. Looking at the pictures of his twisted SUV tossed to the side of a Southern California road, the latter seems a lot closer than it ever has.
Woods may play competitive golf again, and it’s possible the back surgeries he has undergone — five now, including one just two months ago — might have been more difficult to overcome than the fractured leg and shattered ankle he suffered in the crash. This is a man who won a U.S. Open on a shredded knee and broken leg, a man who rebuilt himself from being unable to get out of bed to winning the Masters at age 43. Could he endure a long rehab with a rod in his leg and win again as he gets closer to 50? Who’s to say? We know limits aren’t for Tiger.
Golf, though, has very clear limits. Through all the efforts to grow the game and make the sport more accessible, less expensive and more diverse, there is still just Woods as a major-winning top-shelf draw who also happens to be something other than White. Yeah, Vijay Singh of Fiji was the No. 1 player in the world for a while and won a Masters. And sure, Tony Finau, an American of Tongan and Samoan descent, looks to have the game to win multiple tournaments, including majors. And Collin Morikawa, an Asian American, is only 24 and already owns a major title.
But 24 years after Woods won his first Masters, he remains not just the only Black American to win at Augusta National but the only one to truly contend. The sport was White before Tiger. It will be Whiter still after him.
This isn’t just about diversity in the game’s future, though. It’s about the game’s future, period.
Think about the most recent PGA Tour event, the Genesis Invitational, staged by Woods’s company and benefiting his foundation. The field was stacked. The course at storied Riviera Country Club invites excitement. The leader board included Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, who are ranked first and second in the world. The action was riveting. And Max Homa missed a three-foot birdie putt that would have won the tournament on the 72nd hole — only to dust himself off and beat Finau in a playoff. Goodness, golf can be such great theater.
Yet the needle-moving portion of the programming came not from a single shot from a star in the field but from CBS’s Jim Nantz, who interviewed Woods about his comeback from his most recent back surgery, whether he would be able to play in the Masters (“God, I hope so”), and his plans to prepare.
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Woods said.
That, folks, amounts to major news in golf. With Woods, golf can drive Internet traffic and lead “SportsCenter.” Without him, it is borderline niche. The PNC Championship is a low-key, off-the-radar, two-man team event that often features fathers and sons. In most years, it makes barely a blip. In December, Tiger played with his then-11-year-old son, Charlie. Highlights from their first-round 62 have more than 2.6 million views on YouTube. Justin Thomas could play with a hippo as his partner and not draw that many eyeballs.
The sport, of course, has endured Woods’s sustained absences — first following leg surgery, then after his personal travails that led to his divorce, then with his back issues. In 2008, 2011 and 2014, he missed two majors apiece. In 2016 and 2017 — the low point with his back — he didn’t as much as tee off in a single major.
There were exciting tournaments with worthy winners in his absence, yet his absence almost always felt like the most significant story line. No golf discussion invoked more impassioned — and pertinent — debate than whether Tiger would overtake Jack Nicklaus’s record total of 18 major championships, and as each one ticked off the calendar, Woods was more relevant than almost anyone in the field — even when he stayed home.
“Golf was not in my near future or even distant future,” Woods said at the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual awards dinner, held on the eve of the 2019 Masters. “I knew I was going to be part of the game, but playing the game again, I couldn’t even do that with my son, Charlie. I couldn’t even putt in the backyard.”
Back then there was still the anticipation of his return, the curiosity about his ability to compete, the dramatic tales of dealing with chronic pain and not being able to pick up his kids. His every appearance and utterance drove the sport’s news cycle. He’s chipping. He’s making full swings! He’s in a tournament. He’s contending in Tampa and then at Bay Hill. He’s in the mix at the British Open and the PGA. He won the Tour Championship!
During the time between 2014 and his Masters title in 2019 — a period in which Woods sat out 10 of 20 majors and missed the cut in five more — he wasn’t competing, but he was present. Because he had so often defied odds before — indeed, because we expected him to routinely pull off what others could not — the possibility of overcoming a spell when he could no longer chip effectively or longer droughts when he couldn’t drive the ball straight became tantalizing. He was there, and that mattered.
Should Woods manage to recover and build his body back into the shape where he can compete, maybe there will be a time when the hope will return, when we will salivate for every update about the improbable moving toward possible. But for now, golf is again staring at life without Tiger. Woods must overcome his injury, which will surely be difficult. Golf must overcome an absence that feels ever closer to permanent. That could be harder still.