Count me as somebody who has learned his lesson about reactionary Tiger Woods takes. In 2015, convinced I could read the writing on the wall and more than a little annoyed at the attention Tiger commanded in a moment of generational change in golf, I declared him “done.” But, okay, I didn’t just declare him done—I did it with a sort of reckless abandon that today almost seems designed to place myself on the thinnest, most precarious limb of the hot take tree.
The take remained fresh for a few years, and then, when Tiger came back last season, contended at the big events, and finally broke through at the Tour Championship, my words were fed back to me, one by one, with a heaping side of crow.
Having crashed to hard ground, I have no interest in climbing back on that limb—far be it from me to repeat the mistake and declare the story of Tiger Woods over and done. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to see Monday’s announcement as anything but somber news:
It’s possible to read this tweet, don a pair of rose-colored glasses, and come away optimistic: It’s temporary! His back is fine! He’ll be at the Players!
Yeah, but…he’s also 43, and any injury you’ve been dealing with for “weeks” is not so easily shed. There’s also the fact that athletes always—repeat, always—downplay injuries. Plus, as Steve DiMeglio pointed out at USA Today, his litany of injuries is long, and it’s not even the first time he’s had a neck issue:
“Four procedures to his left knee. Four to his back, the most recent a spinal fusion surgery in April 2017. And there was an assortment of other injuries he had to deal with over the years to his neck, Achilles, elbow, wrist.”
I’m no doctor, but I also can’t help but notice that the neck is in close proximity to the back, and that the two are both traversed by the spine. I’ve even heard discussion that problems with one area of the body, even after being repaired, can throw other parts out of whack. Nor, I’m told, do pain and degeneration typically improve with age.
In short, Tiger’s body has been nickel-and-diming him to death for a few years now, and whatever you call his 2018 run—the second summer, the unexpected final bloom—it’s now time to at least ask the question if that unexpected stretch was our last chance to see Tiger at something vaguely reminiscent of his former glory. True greatness comes and goes almost before we understand it was there, and just as Roger Federer had come down from his transcendent peak before the wider world truly understood that he was the greatest of all-time, so Tiger donned the 2001 green jacket without anyone quite knowing that, by the narrowest definition, his prime had passed.
What follows after the shattering act of sublimity are a series of aftershocks, and the greater the talent, the greater the reverberations. Tiger’s after-shocks, which included three more years of winning multiple majors, would dwarf most careers. But like any echo, they diminished each time, until the 2008 U.S. Open came to a close and he’d won his 14th and (to date) final major. His time of relative greatness hadn’t ended, but by 2014 he was no longer winning titles, and by 2017 the last subterranean rumbles had seemed to cease forever.
Which made 2018 such a miracle—his talent was so extraordinary, his will so strong, that his dormancy couldn’t last, and in fact practically demanded one last airing. It proved that people like me were short-sighted in our fatal proclamations, and in some ways that ultimate victory at East Lake cemented his legend.
And yet, there’s also the larger trends, and there’s also time. Look at this major timeline, and tell me what you see:
To torture this “act of god” thing to death, imagine the green boxes as the thunderous explosions and the yellows as the surrounding lightning, while the white represents calm. If the entire chart represents the storm that is Tiger Woods, does it look like that storm is about to rekindle itself, or does it look like we just saw the last downpour? If you made a bigger chart with his non-major wins, the general idea would be the same—we’re looking at an obvious diminution.
Beyond the metaphorical, the trajectory is backed up by the facts. It seemed anomalous for him to make it through 2018 without any major injury scare after battling his body for years, and the realistic conclusion was that his body was on borrowed time. Now, we see some comeuppance, though it’s unclear yet how severe it might be. In any case, as I found recently, wins begin to get scarce at this age for even the best golfers—would you believe that if Phil Mickelson won another major, he’d be the oldest champion ever?—and with exactly one win in the last five years and change, Tiger doesn’t seem likely to throw his hat in the ring with Phil or Sam Snead or Fred Funk or any of the greatest old man golfers in the sport’s history.
It’s easy to get carried away by a year like 2018, especially when there’s a not-very-well-hidden vested interest on the part of the media-industry complex to see Tiger at his peak again. Everyone wants him there, but wishing won’t make it so. And that’s the thing about a second summer—no matter how warm the sunshine, and no matter how we crave its permanence, winter is just on the other side of our dreams.