Is Tiger Woods finished as a golfer? No. Is he finished as Tiger Woods? Sadly, I think the answer is yes. I don’t see how Woods can ever again be as dominant as he once was, before his knee and his personal life fell apart.
When Woods pulled out of the first round of The Players Championship on Thursday after shooting a 42 for nine holes, many fans expressed surprise and dismay. But perhaps the surprise, at least, is misplaced, for two reasons.
First, Woods has always liked to mess with his swing, but as his game gets worse, that obsession gets stronger. It’s hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg in that vicious cycle.
The other reason is more simple and impossible to control: age. Woods was simply so superb for so long, that it’s hard for many to accept that he’s 35 years old and being stalked around the course by guys 10 years younger, with healthy knees and stable private lives and without the unending scrutiny of media and fans.
At Sawgrass, he apparently injured his left knee on the first hole, which then impacted his Achilles’ tendon, which then impacted his calf. For any other golfer, that news would be worrisome. For Woods, it could be catastrophic. His left knee has long been an issue: He has undergone three arthroscopic knee surgeries over the years (1994, 2002, 2008) and after winning his 14th (and last) major, the 2008 U.S. Open, with a torn ACL and two stress fractures in his left tibia, he needed surgery yet again.
No one doubted then that Woods — with his devotion to the game and his fitness regimen — would be able to rehab the knee and come back as strong as ever. And he managed six wins in 2009.
In fact, in October 2009, Woods had it all: more money than perhaps any athlete in the world in winnings and endorsement deals, a beautiful blonde wife, two adorable children. Oh, and he was widely regarded as the best golfer in the history of the game. He was a real-life Roy Hobbs; when he strode down fairways around the world, people did say, “There goes the best that ever was.”
Then came the car wreck, the subsequent revelations of infidelity and sex addiction, highly publicized mistresses and a costly divorce. Woods’s life forever changed, and that’s on him. He claims to be a much better father in the wake of the incident, and that’s commendable.
But perhaps karma isn’t quite done with Woods yet. Every person ages differently, but 35 is still not 25, and it may be important to remember that Woods has been swinging a golf club for 33 years.
Maybe his late father should have waited a few years before putting a club in his son’s hands, but then maybe he’d never have been the dominant player we watched all these years. Life is full of trade-offs.
Woods has a powerful swing; his devotion to weight-lifting was at first mocked, then copied by the younger generation of golfers. The torque a golf swing puts on a knee is not natural. And Woods’s knee is not 35 — with all those procedures, his knee has aged faster than the rest of him.
The good news is that while there was much hand-wringing about Woods’s decline leading to the death of golf, the game has moved on during his absences, with a plethora of fist-pumping young stars such as Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day clogging the leader boards.
Summer Sundays may not be as much fun, but golf will survive with Tiger Woods being less than Tiger Woods. Whether Tiger Woods can survive it is the tougher question.