Just as the dominant presence of Tiger Woods was impossible to foresee during his teenage years, so it would have taken an astonishing level of prescience to pinpoint his status when turning 40.
Woods reaches that landmark age on Wednesday seeking to emerge from a mountain of golfing obituaries with his name returned to the summit. Regrets? He’ll have a few.
For all his tribulations Woods remains golf’s biggest pull. The sport may be uncomfortable with that, such is the emerging brilliance of others, but it is undeniable. There is also no need for golf to seek a new Tiger; he is and was a one-off, the kind of figure not likely in different generations. Even his skin colour is wholly significant in a sport that has been riddled by prejudice.
Once, on a July Saturday morning in St Andrews, hundreds wandered on to the Old Course from the town as word emerged that Woods was playing the closing stretch with a group of juniors. No other player can, or will, command such an audience. It is fascinating in itself that Woods’ on-course decline has not blunted the scale of attention towards him.
At his peak Woods was compulsive viewing. In decline? The same applied. At his best Woods’ powers extended to intimidation of even top-level opponents. Winning was an obsession, as observed by his former wife, Elin Nordegren, when seeking to celebrate a tournament victory not long after the pair became an item. “Honey, this is what we do,” shrugged Woods of collecting a trophy and moving on to the next competition. His 12-shot win at Augusta National in 1997 was staggering, as was a winning run that stretched to nine in 2000 alone.
If Jack Nicklaus’s record major haul of 18, combined with a runners-up total of 19, separates him as the greatest player of all time, there is a reasonable argument for Woods producing some of the finest golf. Troublesome though it is to compare eras, Woods’ continual capacity to produce epic moments of theatre still resonates.
Woods single-handedly dragged golf into a fresh commercial stratosphere, a matter not lost on the leading players of 2015 as they pursue multimillion-pound prizes week after week. When Tiger’s father, the late Earl Woods, insisted to anyone who would listen and plenty who would not that his son was going to revolutionise the game, it was portrayed as fantasy. Earl was right. Woods emerged as a sporting phenomenon.
Woods’ interest with physical performance verged on obsessional at times but there is also little question he enhanced the idea of golfers as athletes. Players such as Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have maintained that theme, with the top competitors of today more in tune with athleticism than was ever previously the case. It is to their benefit.
The good news for Woods, as he continues rehabilitation from yet more back surgery, is that turning 40 in itself need not be prohibitive in a competitive sense. Nicklaus himself is proof of that; his 40th birthday was in January 1980, with US Open and US PGA Championship successes arriving within a matter of months. In 1986 Nicklaus memorably secured the Masters.
“Forty was just a number for me,” said Nicklaus. “It really didn’t make any difference. The hardest birthday I had was 65 because I knew 65 was the year I wasn’t going to play any more.”
Others, such as Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie, have remained brilliantly competitive in what would otherwise be regarded as the final few holes of their careers. That is generally in senior golf, though, and a scene in which Woods will surely have no interest whatsoever.
For the moment discussion about whether or not Woods can emerge from the doldrums of injury should be mixed with appreciation of what has gone before. At this milestone Woods is the winner of 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour events in total, the youngest player in history to complete a career grand slam, the golfer with the most consecutive and cumulative weeks at the summit of the world rankings and the only man to have won all four majors in a row. He once completed a run of successive cuts made that reached 142. Just because time has passed since Woods was imperious, the scale of his achievements should not be tossed aside.
Yet still, the question of “What if?” appears. After all, when Woods clinched the US Open of 2008, there was no sense at all that his major run would end there temporarily or, as is far more likely, otherwise. “I have read a lot on social media recently about what number of majors Tiger could have won by 40,” said McIlroy. “Why don’t we just appreciate what he has done? Because that is exceptional in itself.”
McIlroy is right, of course. The complication with all matters Woods, however, is that so many onlookers regard his fall from grace as entirely self-inflicted. The sporting audience in Woods’ native United States seemed to take it as a collective affront that the supposedly squeaky clean hero was something else entirely.
Only Woods himself can properly assess whether the chaos that engulfed his personal life in late 2009 had a marked impact on his professional pursuits. What does seem a fair analysis is that the sudden realisation that he was not infallible, either on or off the course, had a profound impact on Woods. Not only was he susceptible to the temptations and weaknesses of so many others, Woods had to carry out a supposed rehabilitation process, by way of the most cringe-inducing public apology in history, in front of the watching world.
For all that Woods’ behaviour was reprehensible in the context of his wife and children, he stands alone even in the world of high-profile celebrity as having to take his medicine in something akin to a stage show. In a wider sense, much as with Diego Maradona, it is difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for an individual who is denied anything even approaching day-to-day normality by virtue of sporting brilliance. No amount of money or success can offset, for example, the need for Woods to have security alongside his children in any public place.
In the past year there has been a noticeable and positive change in the public behaviour of Woods. He has been deeply suspicious of the media since childhood, a thought process imparted on him by his father. The long-term consequence has done Woods Jr a disservice; fellow players and those inside golf speak of an amiable, popular character within the locker room. Contrary to widespread belief, a return to the top of golf by Woods would be widely welcomed – by other players, by the media and by the sport itself as it battles for commercial relevance.
In public Woods has been closed; thereby denying him much sympathy as he battles to save his career. He would also never admit to weakness or, for example, that he may not be at a major championship with the reasonable aspiration of winning. Too often strong words belied reality. Had Woods held his hands up to the struggles or form and fitness that he was enduring, people would have respected that and rooted for him.
Whether by virtue of public relations advice or otherwise Woods has verged on expansive and the brutally honest when most recently facing the media. The early willingness to declare himself as a Ryder Cup vice-captain, too, hints at a change of outlook. Woods did not so much have disdain for the team event when in his pomp but found it naturally difficult to switch from single-minded individual into a collective scenario.
In his last bulletin as a 30-something, he verged on the reflective. “My friends keep asking me how it feels to be turning 40 at the end of the month and my response is, ‘It depends when you ask me,’” he said. “Mentally, people who know me know I’m like a five-year-old. Physically, sometimes I feel old and sometimes I feel like a teenager. I don’t like the polar opposites of the two. I’d like to be somewhere in the middle where I feel 40.
“Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years? I am still playing golf at the highest level and winning tournaments and major championships.”
For now that seems far too lofty a goal but, if anyone has earned the right to golfing dreams, Tiger Woods is that man.
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