Through the first five months of the season, Tiger Woods was "back." He won four times at places where he's most comfortable (Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill) and places where he'd struggled in recent years (TPC Sawgrass), and was one unlucky clang off the flag stick at Augusta from making a playoff and potentially winning his 15th career major.
The two-year "process" with Sean Foley appeared near completion and the health issues that had interrupted his recent seasons had abated, too. Three months later, however, Tiger hobbles into Labor Day weekend after another summer of discontent in which he injured an elbow and back ... and played his fifth straight major-less season.
In part because he's bored too many with his dominance and in part because of his own publicly-stated standards, the season will only be remembered for those past three months of disappointment. Not the (minimum) five victories, or the millions more earned, or the potential Player of the Year award, or the renewed Sunday sense of inevitability that pervaded those five wins. The year will be characterized as another missed opportunity -- remembered for the career-worst elbow-clutching 13-over finish and weekend unraveling at Merion, the Sunday contention and then flame out at Muirfield where he was eight shots worse than winner Phil Mickelson in the final round and the failure to break par while going quietly to a mediocre punctuation at the PGA.
The season is not over for the PGA Tour, but it is for Tiger Woods. The world's top-ranked player is still playing and has a chance to bank millions more during the FedExCup playoffs. He's bearing down on what was once considered an unreachable PGA Tour record of 82 career victories. Tiger will blow by that, and maybe before next spring, but for the only important benchmark remaining -- Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors -- the season has passed.
As I wrote after his runaway win at the WGC-Bridgestone earlier this month, it's an impossible standard to work under: having so many otherwise amazing resume achievements has been rendered unimpressive because of his past excellence. Woods has already banked his 10th (!) five-win season -- an insane, unimaginable record -- but what can he gain in these final three weeks of the FedExCup? He could add millions more, win the playoffs and lower the margin to Snead. Those are all small and incidental catches on the hunt for the whale, however: the majors record.
The possible gains by ambiguous sportswriter measurements for "greatest ever status" are relatively modest, but there are definitely potential losses and hits to Tiger during these non-major events. Woods is a polarizing figure so every time he does something notable, there's just as much scorn as there is admiration. Last week, when he went down in pain at the Barclays as his approach shot sailed off the course and into a swamp, the judgment was swift.
At this point in his career, every time Tiger winces in pain or makes an outward expression signaling something is hurting, he's either:
A) Dramatizing the injury to make any success seem more impressive
B) Dramatizing and or completely faking it because he hit a bad shot and needs an excuse
C) Falling apart because he took (not my words!) performance-enhancing drugs
D) All of the above
These are the tropey grenades launched every time Tiger appears injured. They're not just coming from internet commenters -- although they're a vocal majority -- but from many writers and media members, as well. It's a tough spot -- playing tournaments that can't really improve your status in historical terms, but taking fire anytime you don't play well and/or for being a faker. These accusations are all opinions, some more wild and unsubstantiated than others, though.
A fact is that Tiger Woods played, and won, a major golf tournament on a broken leg and torn knee ligaments. This is a thing that happened. I suppose there could have been some dramatization around the edges, but the leg was still broken and shredded and Tiger still played and won. Alan Shipnuck, generally a cynic who's not exactly a Tiger apologist, wrote on Monday that "whatever flaws he may have in technique and character, say this about Woods -- he always plays his heart out."
That seems a bit more reasonable than "Tiger hit a bad shot so of course he fakes an injury."
As Shipnuck notes, Tiger has plenty of flaws -- he does not seem like the nicest guy, is probably a jerk, and is playing golf with a "burdened walk" (read that link) that may no longer make the game, his career or his life exactly enjoyable. His dominance and fortune have brought on legitimate and extreme scrutiny, however, and he set the standard that only the majors record now matters. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt, though, when it comes to the legitimacy of an injury and playing in pain.
Tiger is now 37 years old and has made millions of golf swings in his life. He's sustaining injuries -- in the knee, the elbow, the back -- where one would after a lifetime of doing that.
After a week of skepticism and exasperation that he was being dramatic about potentially not playing, he now enters the Deutsche Bank Championship -- a tournament where he could earn another $1.4 million, improve his stranglehold on the FedExCup and world rankings and inch within two of Snead's all-time wins record -- and still not have that really matter much for many who will be quick to pounce as soon as he shows pain during a particularly difficult stretch. That doesn't seem like a fun existence for arguably the greatest athlete of his generation.