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.