AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even the most pyrotechnic of sporting careers is more apt to end with a damp squib than with a glittering display of brilliance. Sculpted bodies eventually cease cooperating, seemingly inconsequential injuries don’t heal, and luminous skills grow dull. Ted Williams was a rarity in many respects, but never moreso than when he homered in his final at-bat. Fortunate legends might enjoy a last teasing fly-ball, but most conclude matters with a weak grounder years after they ought to have headed for the showers.
The belief that one can clear the fences one more time usually endures well beyond the likelihood of actually doing so. This is particularly true in golf, a sport that permits athletes to remain competitively relevant much longer than any other endeavor in which equipment isn’t bearing the brunt of the labor.
Arnold Palmer’s swan song appearance on the PGA Tour came more than a half-century after his debut, and 11 years after he last made a cut. Jack Nicklaus saw weekend action in the year before he finally retired, 46 years after making his first cut on Tour. But both men went through the stages of grief familiar to icons well-stricken in years: first, insist you’ll quit when you can no longer win; second, say you’ll go when you’re just taking up a spot in the field; third, lower the bar to the final notch just above embarrassing yourself. Eventually, they all move reluctantly toward the door marked ‘Exit.’
So where on that continuum is Tiger Woods?
He’s certainly well shy of embarrassing himself, and like Arnold in his latter years has earned the right to do so if he chooses (but he won’t). Nor can he be accused of selfishly taking someone else’s place in the field, since he’s earned the berth he occupies. On paper, at 47 he’s still of an age where opportunities to win are fewer but not finished. But in practice, he’s so banged up that winning or even contending has never seemed more distant in the rearview.
There was an ineffable sadness in watching Woods limp around the golf course he bestrode like a colossus in 1997, when he won the Masters by a dozen strokes. There’s an understandable desire to focus on his swing mechanics, to find positive signs that the weaponry is intact. Now and again it is, but his is an artillery gun borne on a rickety wagon, too unpredictable and unstable to be relied upon in the battle.
The challenges he has overcome and his reputation for sheer bloody-mindedness encourages fans to think there’s another round in the chamber, but what we saw at the 87th Masters offers little hope. His game wasn’t sharp — and won’t ever be sharp because his body can’t endure the practice regimen Tour-ready golf requires — and the body is increasingly disloyal to the heart.
So why does he hang on when the band is striking up a tune that grows louder by the day?
A saccharine narrative has Woods sacrificing himself for us, the fans, to continue providing thrills at the expense of his own well-being. It’s a mawkish theory of martyrdom that stretches credulity. He didn’t play for the pleasure of fans and doesn’t continue at their pleasure either. He’s slogging onward because he knows he’s been cheated.
It’s an audacious claim for someone with 15 victories in major championships and 82 on the PGA Tour, but Woods has been shortchanged in longevity. Palmer and Nicklaus enjoyed ample returns over 50-plus years, whereas Woods has been out here barely half that and seems perilously close to the end. There are myriad reasons of course — lengthy injury layoffs, some owing to wear and tear, others to personal misadventure. That’s just what was lost in daylight. A bout with chipping yips and a couple of swing changes that seemed motivated more by boredom than necessity surely cost him numerous titles too.
The hope that there might be another title in him is based more in sentimentality than common sense. His last three appearances in majors have yielded one missed cut and two withdrawals after making the cut — in each case because his body couldn’t cash the check his heart was writing. That account is all but depleted.
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The burden of brilliance is that Woods is destined now to be measured against the athlete he was, particularly when he pitches up at venues he once imperiously dismantled. Like at Augusta National, and perhaps again at Hoylake for the Open Championship this summer. Such weeks are cause for remembering how good it all was, sure, but also are sobering reminders of how completely he has eroded before us — the body, the game, the mystique, but thankfully too the aloofness. Woods has never been more relatable, but he isn’t playing for those who relate to him.
No permission to stand down need be granted. Woods is battling because he thinks he can still add to a legacy that is exquisite but incomplete. Only when he admits that he can no longer win will the passages of grief and, finally, acceptance begin. For us as much as for him.