Wondering About Woods

I wrote an essay on Tiger Woods as the end piece for an anthology of my golf stories that was published last year. Due to the production schedule, it had to be turned in around the middle of August in 2013, not long after Woods had won his fifth PGA Tour event of that season and 79th of his career. While Woods hadn’t won a major championship in five years, he was otherwise playing some impressive golf and was more than recognizable as the player who had dominated his sport.

The major drought, I still believed, was going to be broken. Where the 2014 majors were being played suited him beautifully: Augusta National, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla, where he had won, and Pinehurst No. 2, where he had come very close. His back had not yet seized up at the Barclays playoff event, presaging what would happen in 2014 —surgery and an aborted comeback.

I closed the piece with a question: What if Woods, building on his fine 2013 season, started winning majors again and won four more of them to tie Jack Nicklaus at 18? How long would he continue the quest for No. 19? That scenario, I argued, would be the most fascinating of all the plots that Woods has been responsible for in his decades as a must-watch golfer.

Nearly 18 months after writing what I did, that fantasy, as riveting as it might have been, seems whacky. Woods used to be photographed riding in a cart with a major trophy in his lap. Last Thursday at Torrey Pines, he was again seen in a cart carrying nothing more than doubts.

He was forced to withdraw during the first round of the Famers Insurance Open because of a back problem that resurfaced just as he was trying to solve ugly chipping and pitching issues as intriguing, in a ghoulish kind of way, as his former brilliance had been. If Woods was a lost man as his personal life fell apart amid scandal in 2009, he is a lost golfer now closing in on 40 years of age with physical, technical and confidence issues.

If there is a map out of this wilderness, it will be the greatest escape of Woods’ golf life. Instead of wondering how long Tiger would try to surpass Nicklaus if he ever pulled even with him — an outlandish hypothetical given the current facts — it is apropos to wonder how long Tiger will even play on in search of a few steady rounds, to get in the hunt on the Sunday, to win PGA Tour event No. 80. Watching Woods pack another car for another premature exit after not being able to finish another round in which a fellow competitor was picking up his tee to save him the pain, Mars feels closer than another major victory.

Before departing Torrey Pines, Woods spoke technically about his body, of muscles that had deactivated and led to his back seizing up. I thought of what I had heard him say on a Friday afternoon in Kentucky last August after he struggled all over Valhalla, his surgically repaired back stiff and swing sour, to miss only his fourth cut in 66 majors as a professional. “I felt old a long time ago,” Woods said. He didn’t appear to be joking.

What happened at Torrey Pines certainly wasn’t a laughing matter, regardless of all the riffs on social media in response to Woods’ parking-lot explanation of what had caused his body to betray him Thursday afternoon after fog delays. I take no glee in seeing the greatest golfer of his time struggle like that, and it is the way Woods’ problems have piled one on top of the other that causes so much pause. If by dint of effort and luck the issues can be sorted out to the point where Woods isn’t an imposter of his winning self, the clock will still be ticking. As Lee Trevino said, no golfer has it all. Despite all he has earned and all he was given, for Woods competitive longevity could be drawing to an inside straight.

Back in the late 1990s one of Sam Snead’s associates, unsolicited, sent me an 8 by 10 photograph of the record 82-time winner with Woods. Sam, whom I had recently profiled, signed it. From the background, I believe it was taken on the practice range during the 1997 Players Championship. Woods looks happy, almost seeming to be aware that something very good was just around the corner. In a couple of weeks he would win the Masters in historic fashion, and the Tiger legend accelerated like a dragster.

As Woods piled up the victories, surpassing Nicklaus to trail only Snead, the picture seemed to be a cool bit of golf history to have, the two men with the most wins on the PGA Tour. Until last Thursday, I thought the younger man on the right was on an inexorable journey to become the new and likely forever No. 1. Now, because of the disorder in Tiger’s game, I’m not so sure.

At the moment Woods is the anti-Snead, not easing into middle age with an oily swing that defied time but going there searching for so much — too much, perhaps, than can ever be found. How he feels might be who he is, and records aren’t found in old.

Charlie Sifford, 1922-2015

The snowy view from my window the day after Charlie Sifford died at age 92 isn’t much more white than the competitive-golf landscape that largely kept him and other blacks away until 1961, when the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause was finally removed.

There may be no more fitting title to a memoir than Sifford’s 1992 Just Let Me Play, because for so long that simple desire was stopped by the barbed wire of prejudice.

Brave African-American golfers before Sifford such as Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes had lobbied for the same opportunity, but their window had closed by the time California attorney general Stanley Mosk applied the pressure that led to institutional change. As it was Sifford was bearing down on 40 when he became the first black allowed to join the tour, when he effectively became golf’s Jackie Robinson and blazed a trail for others to follow.

Access didn’t always equal acceptance. A native North Carolinian like Sifford, I was old enough to have gone to segregated schools for a while but not old enough to have witnessed the full fury of racial hatred, and it was painful to learn what Sifford went through when he played his first tour event in the South, the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open.

Sifford was treated well by those who invited him to play in the GGO, but after he shot a first-round 68 there was a telephoned death threat and persistent taunts and slurs from a group of fans the next day until police intervened on the back nine. It might have been one of the most formidable even-par 72s anyone has ever shot, and Sifford, despite the heavy undercurrent of tension, finished fourth in the event.

As Sifford later wrote: “… I felt a larger victory. I had come through my first southern tournament with the worst kind of social pressures and discrimination around me, and I hadn’t cracked. I hadn’t quit.”

He would win two PGA Tour events, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969 — both of them coming after Pete Brown became the first black to win a PGA-sanctioned event, in 1964. (Sifford’s 1957 Long Beach Open win wasn’t recognized as official because it was 54 holes.) A cadre of good friends among white tour pros including Bob Goalby, Larry Mowry and Don January provided a balm against all the slights and stares Sifford would get for years as a rare golfer of color on the biggest stages.

In 2004 Sifford was the first African-American to be selected for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Last November President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Lots of golfers get rich and find a measure of fame. Not as many become part of history. Fewer still make a difference. Sifford, enduring what would have broken many, did. Now that most of the fences are down and many of the attitudes have changed, golfers of any color who chase their dreams as hard as he did are going to do just fine.