Tiger Woods is back, but only he knows for how long as age begins to catch up with him
Woods will make another return to the game this week, but the spectre of his career’s denouement looms
Returning to golf was always going to be an easier decision for Tiger Woods than knowing when to leave.
One week in the Bahamas is not going to determine that.
Woods turns 41 at the end of next month, and for the first time since he started this holiday tournament, he is the oldest player in the field. Age is not the issue, though. It never is in golf. One of the greatest aspects of this sport is that it can be played a few years short of forever.
At the elite level, however, that’s also its greatest burden.
Golf rarely offers a graceful exit.
While it didn’t cross his mind Monday when Woods played nine holes with Derek Jeter in a breezy atmosphere punctuated by the occasional needle, it was a reminder of how difficult it will be for Woods to leave at the right time, on his own terms.
Jeter knew when it was time to go, and his departure was right out of a movie script. He hit a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth in his final game at Yankee Stadium, and then he hit another RBI single in the final at-bat of his career and received a standing ovation at Fenway Park.
Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat. Peyton Manning walked off the field for the last time as a Super Bowl champion. Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last game with the Los Angeles Lakers.
What would be a comparable ending for Woods, or any golfer?
“I don’t know,” Woods said with emphasis on the final word. He paused for a brief moment before adding, “You can’t.”
Arnold Palmer had the tearful farewell from the US Open at Oakmont in 1994, the grand crossing of the Swilcan Bridge at St Andrews a year later, an entire week devoted to his departure at the Masters in 2004. His final time playing Bay Hill, he hit driver off the deck to the front of the 18th green and made par.
But the King quit keeping score well before that. At the 2001 Pennsylvania Classic at Laurel Valley, the standard bearer removed his score from the sign and Palmer did not turn in a card (he would have shot 90).
Gary Player played the Masters for the 52nd time at age 74.
“You would think that win a major and you’re done,” Woods said of the ideal exit from golf. “But if you win a major, you’re going to want to come back and play.”
Jack Nicklaus never won again after the 1986 Masters he won at age 46. He never missed a major as a pro until the 1998 British Open. Nicklaus played the Masters for the last time in 2005 without telling anyone – he finished on the front nine because of rain delays.
Still, he managed a memorable retirement that summer when he played a major for the last time at St Andrews. While he missed the cut, Nicklaus birdied the final hole, raised his left arm in that pose made famous at the ’86 Masters and said, “I knew that hole would move wherever I hit it.”
Woods isn’t ready to think about retirement or he would have left when he had the chance.
“If you love the game, you can keep coming back,” Ernie Els said when assessing Woods’ return to golf. “Otherwise, we can walk away. I have enough of everything. I can go do other stuff. But I still feel I can play decent golf, and I love it. If he has the desire – and I think he does have the desire, otherwise I think he could have really walked away this time – then you keep grinding and forget about how good you were. It’s where you are now.”
Woods waited 15 months to heal. He has said his health is no longer an issue, and the final measure will be this week at the Hero World Challenge. His body has aged and his swing has changed. The golf landscape has become even more crowded with younger, disciplined players who grew up in awe of him. They work just as hard, hit the ball farther and make putts that Woods once did.
Can he win again? Maybe not this week, but it would be foolish to count him out, majors included. All it takes is one week when everything goes right. That doesn’t apply only to Woods; that has been proven with plenty of players over the years.
“Our sport, you see guys like Jim Furyk just shooting 58, hitting it as far as he does. You can play different ways and still win golf tournaments,” Woods said. “You can’t do that in baseball, football, basketball, tennis. You have your window. And once you miss that window, you’re done. You’re starting to see the end of Fed (Roger Federer), and it’s sad. We can see he’s not quite the same. Same with Jetes (Jeter) after he broke his ankle.
“In golf, you can still have one or two great weeks a year and still win golf tournaments. And if you win two golf tournaments, you’ve basically had a great year.”
It’s enough to keep him going. For how long, not even he knows.