There aren’t teary-eyed retirement press conferences in golf. It’s rare to just completely stop playing any competitive events. There’s no Elway “I can't do it any more” or Favre-ian back-and-forth declarations because you never really have to provide that kind of full-stop clarity to the masses. That clarity may often never come to the player himself, either.
A pro golfer knows when he has to adjust or when he can’t do some of the things he once used to do. That doesn’t mean he can’t still compete at the deepest and most important events with those adjustments well into his 50s. Or even without adjustments and no form, there’s still the unexplainable hot week where things just happen. Sometimes that Round of 65 just comes out of the ether, stunning the player and anyone who expected anything of him.
A 59-year-old with a hip replacement, Tom Watson, nearly won a major championship — one of the real ones, not one of the Senior ones. Those might have been special once-in-lifetime circumstances for Watson but they still existed and we still get to watch Fred Couples and probably Phil Mickelson, too, compete at the Masters until they’re put in the ground.
Some pros give it up to pursue other things. Some play in everything they’re eligible for until they’re no longer eligible. Others figure out a balance somewhere in between. But it’s rare to see a pro, especially a legend, just play in nothing anymore and disappear.
I hope Tiger Woods gets this particular pro golf luxury of hanging around at your own pace and playing what you want. I doubt he will. We always demand a black-and-white clarity from Tiger, and on a canvas with the highest expectations and standards placed on anyone who has ever played this game (placed by Tiger himself, too).
On Thursday afternoon, Woods sent a wordless tweet with a link to his website, where he announced his fourth back surgery since early 2014. This was a different kind of surgery from the prior procedures, one that his agent described to ESPN’s Bob Harig as what you do “when you’ve tried everything else.” Golf and his timetable for return were just a piece of this detailed announcement. His friend Notah Begay III said he hopes the surgery can yield a “reasonable personal life.” His agent told Golf Channel Tiger’s “entire emphasis is quality of life and a healthy, active lifestyle.”
His camp, which is notorious for bs’ing their way through unfortunate events with scoops of sugary frosting, is not exactly talking about a procedure that was done so he can swing the way he wants or not worry about picking the ball out of some tough fescue at Shinnecock Hills next summer. This was an injury update where the golf career was just a bit part and not a priority. It was not encouraging but while another surgery may have caught us off-guard, we weren’t expecting encouraging anything from Woods any time soon.
Tiger will miss all four majors for the second year in a row and hasn’t really been a competitive golfer since 2013. After all that, this latest surgery disclosure added another round of “It’s ovah” pronouncements.
It might be over. That’s a fine and reasonable take, even if you shout it with a certainty that cannot be acquired. I wish we didn’t have to proclaim it and could just let Tiger have another back surgery and wander off again. But with Tiger, we need to make proclamations, however reasoned they may be with all the available evidence.
But maybe he’ll play again next year, or even later this fall. Maybe he’ll just start playing a few events each year that benefit his foundation and some of the majors where he’ll have running exemptions no matter how far in the world rankings he tumbles. Maybe we won’t hear from him for a year or two and he’ll just show up unannounced at a future Masters and start firing buttercuts into the sky. Maybe he’s a ceremonial golfer and will continue to be this guru to young players and captain for USA team events, an unexpected role he’s embraced and has been so cool to watch him flourish in. Maybe he can’t ever again swing a club to get in that semi-competitive shape and will become a full-time recluse, sipping Monster and playing Call Of Duty in his South Florida manse.
Tiger Woods has benefited greatly from being Tiger Woods. So much has come with the status he earned as the game’s greatest international superstar, but there’s a stack of collateral baggage, too. He doesn’t get to just fade quietly. He doesn’t get to show up to a random event and try to give it a go for a few rounds on a whim — you know, just to see what he’s got or see if that 65 can come out of the ether. Every start, shot, practice swing, and comment is captured by a camera and analyzed and tweeted. No golfer has ever achieved the fame and status of Tiger, the greatest moneymaker and supernova the sport has ever seen. No player has ever had the same level of scrutiny. The rise of ubiquitous internet coverage came just in time for the sunset of Tiger’s career.
Tiger might not be able to pull a Watson or play like Fred and Phil at Augusta. His back may not allow it. We’ve been robbed of those “still life” career years that Brian Philips captured so perfectly on Roger Federer (six years ago now!). A personal scandal and a bad back made this a drop off a cliff, not some decade or two of half-family man, half-competitive pro golfer like Jack enjoyed as he slowly wound things down.
The obvious “take” is that he’s done and been done. Washed. Decrepit. Toast. But in golf, that’s not a clear line and if it is the case with Tiger — that he’s done forever — we should allow him to say it instead of telling him.