Toronto (Globe and Mail) – Tiger Woods quit professional golf this week. He didn’t use those words, but he might as well have.
Woods’s back is shot. He’s had three surgeries. Three months after the most recent one, he’s still incapacitated. He can walk for 10 minutes at a time, after which he needs to lie down. That’s it.
“I don’t want to have another procedure,” Woods told Time magazine. “If I don’t come back and I don’t play again, I still want to have a quality of life with my kids.”
Once anybody in the public eye starts down the naughty-politician route – going on about spending more time with family – they’ve already given up.
Tiger Woods is about to turn 40 years old. He’s the greatest player in golf history, perhaps the emblematic sportsman of his generation and he’s done. There hasn’t been much of a send-off because everyone is tired of his story. It’s hard to recall anyone in sports history who has fallen so far.
In retrospect, Woods’s second-greatest talent was in provoking feelings.
He worked hard at curating his image as a grim, unstoppable, club-swinging robot. He walked up a fairway so purposefully, it looked as though he’d spotted someone on the green he wanted to punch. But that was the extent of it. Aside from Woods’s need to win, there wasn’t much of a personality to get hold of.
Nonetheless, people have either loved or hated him. You cannot be ambivalent about him. That he’s finally getting to that point is just as big a sign as back problems that it’s time to give up.
At the height of his career, in the early aughties, Woods was universally admired. He defied our common instinct toward contrariness and idol toppling. Everybody wanted to see him win, forever. He was a living proof that compulsion can put you on top.
I suspect it was the ubiquity of that love that put him in such a terrible position once it all came apart. Generally, when an athlete is brought low by legal, off-the-playing-field shenanigans, it is an opportunity for reinvention.
The people who already like him have an opportunity to feel disappointed, a smug instinct that leads back around to sympathy. The people who didn’t now see him as a real person, and may change their minds. You need a mix of both to make that emotional soufflé rise.
But everybody loved Woods in the same cold, distant way. He seemed a lot better than the rest of us, a lot more put together. Having created that expectation, he had to maintain it.
We know how that turned out.
In the aftermath of his rolling sex scandals, Woods tried to go the humanizing route. He did a stilted mea culpa at a news conference (though, even at the time, one wondered why he was apologizing to fans for something that wasn’t any of their business).
What would read as fragility in another person looked like weakness in Woods. For the first time ever, he was giving in.
An ad was released featuring audio of Woods’s dead father, Earl, gently interrogating his son: “I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And, did you learn anything?”
It took Woods a while to locate his game again, but he did find it. We forget that he was chosen the PGA’s player of the year just two years ago. For most other athletes, that would have been a good enough resurrection story.
But Woods had set his own bar too high. It was either win majors or remain irrelevant.
It didn’t help much that after a brief appearance of Tiger 2.0 – the uncomfortable oversharer – Woods retreated back into po-faced blandness. When he found a new girlfriend, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, it felt like a match arranged in a Nike boardroom. Even his sincerity seemed insincere.
The injuries became more serious and Woods’s game disintegrated.
After a two-month, mid-season sabbatical, he showed up at last year’s Masters. He was the largest draw on the course. It wasn’t even close.
Spectators at Augusta keep quiet when in the vicinity of the players, but they do talk in whispers. Not around Woods. His appearances on the green were greeted by total silence. Even diminished and unliked, he could still prompt awe.
That was his last chance. Woods played well enough, but was never in contention. He finished tied for 17th.
By his golden standard, it was a disaster. The Woods we used to know would have come out afterward in a silent rage. This new Woods shrugged. He thought he’d done okay.
It had been 10 years since he’d won a Masters. Everyone had stopped believing he could do it again. Even Woods.
He played most of the summer, never finishing higher than 10th. He missed three cuts, including a shambolic outing at the U.S. Open.
People stopped talking about the comeback. This fade into mediocrity was the comeback – just not the one advertisers wanted.
He spoke publicly this week before a tournament he hosts, but can’t play in.
“There is no timetable [to return],” Woods said. “There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards.”
He did a wide-ranging and unusually intimate Q and A with Time’s Lorne Rubenstein that reads like an obituary.
“I peaked at 11, to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I went 36 and 0 that year, never lost a tournament, all in California. And I probably had the cutest girlfriend in all of sixth grade. And I had straight A’s. No A-minuses. They were all perfect A’s. I peaked at 11. I’ve been trying to get back to that since.”
It might be the most human thing Woods has ever said – simultaneously cocky and self aware. It’s the sort of quote that might turn a few people back in his direction. He ought to have tried it earlier.
As farewells go, it’s not much. But it may have to do.