On the final day of this year's Ryder Cup, which the U.S. team finally retrieved from the Euros following eight years of spastic futility, Tiger Woods stood on the sidelines cheering his countrymen on while two of his great generational rivals — Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia — engaged in a classic Sunday duel, featuring epic shotmaking and matching scores of 63. Tiger, who turned 40 last December, has for so long now been sidelined by injury that this once unthinkable tableaux has taken on the patina of normalcy. Serving as a Captain's Assistant, Woods was by all accounts a dependable and invested resource in recapturing the Cup, but the ceremonial nature of his involvement couldn't help but beg the question as to whether this was the closest to a big win we'll ever see him again. All the while his fellow competitors move forward.
Mickelson, six years Woods' senior and his only real point of comparison in terms of both controversy and popularity, hasn't won on tour since 2013 but nevertheless spent the past season burnishing his already formidable legacy with a remarkable runner-up finish at the British Open and a crucial symbolic triumph as the de facto architect of the Americans winning side at Hazeltine. More or less direct contemporaries Zach Johnson and Henrik Stenson have dotted their past couple tour campaigns with career-defining victories, and a new generation of Tiger 2.0 shot machines led by Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth have threatened to reinvent the game yet again. Meanwhile, a badly broken down Tiger has simply hung around. Neither the insular and vaguely paranoid Howard Hughes figure that he has sometimes been portrayed as, nor willing to consign himself full time to the retired athletes' pasture as a pitch man and talking head, he exists in that ghostly netherworld familiar to those NFL players who find themselves on Injured Reserve. A competition junkie without an outlet, an elite performance vehicle with a bum tire — one can only imagine the anxiety of his predicament. He doesn't feel like he's finished, but he's smart enough to realize that great athletes are often the last to know.
It can be difficult to recognize where we are at any given moment in the Tiger saga, largely because of the complicated nature of his many back and knee injuries, which would be enough to render a lesser specimen permanently crippled. Woods has been bracingly candid at times about the extent of his agony following a third microdiscectomy, allowing as recently as last October that his fondest hopes leaned closer to maintaining an acceptable quality of life rather than returning to competitive golf. A year later, his much buzzed about comeback was again delayed this week, when Woods elected at the last minute to cancel his planned appearance at the unfortunately named Safeway Open in Napa. The news sent the links world into paroxysms, mainly owing to his explanation. Woods could have said anything. If he had claimed a back spasm or muscle tweak, no one would have thought to doubt him. Instead he told the truth: He didn't want to play because he suspected he wouldn't be very good. In keeping with his post-hiatus posture, Woods' exact words bordered on poignant in their brass tacks honesty: "I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.” Vulnerable! A fascinating turn of phrase, particularly for a player who once seemed to regard the very notion of failure with vigorous contempt.
In a pattern familiar to those who've followed his career, the golf establishment promptly jumped on Woods with two feet, blaming him for diminishing the event, implying that he has become mentally soft and generally characterizing a scheduling mishap as war crimes against the sport. Woods has a longstanding, largely contentious rapport with those who cover golf for a living, a weird and paradoxical circumstance for a man who almost singlehandedly grew the game to astonishing heights during the '90s and 2000s. Tiger's ugly relationship with the golf press dates back decades and is not simple to understand. Some of it has to do with a certain real or perceived imperiousness demonstrated by Woods and his father, Earl, in the early days of his full-scale takeover of the game. A lot of it is merely that some of these reporters are just insufferable human beings. People like the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, a board-certified windbag and essentially the bully from every '80s teen drama who once basically branded Woods a cheater for life for accidentally taking an illegal drop. Or the sanctified former SI writer Dan Jenkins, who never stopped hating Tiger because of a missed dinner in 1996, or something. Or NBC's Johnny Miller, a longtime Tiger antagonist and near-Trumpian figure of self-regard who took the opportunity provided by Woods' withdrawal to unleash a rash of typically ungrounded psychoanalysis: "My gut is that he wanted to come, but [with] the hoopla, even on the Golf Channel the last couple of days, he must be looking at it thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what am I getting into? I'd like to be home, taking my kids to school, running my restaurant, nothing like having to post a score.'" (One is given to ponder just exactly how weird Johnny Miller's fanfic gets).
These are people who Woods can never satisfy. When he is the least bit vague or open-ended about his plans for a return, they accuse him of secrecy and evasion. When he describes in detail the enormous challenges involved in his recovery, they chide him as delusional for thinking he can come back in the first place. They are aware that the game needs him, that they need him, and they are intensely resentful of this fact. It's not particularly difficult to understand why Tiger feels they can all get bent.
Outside of the weird, internecine world of Tour politics, the question of Woods' viability going forward continues to intrigue. Perhaps the closest recent analogy is Peyton Manning, who was able to ward off career oblivion following multiple neck surgeries, and mount two successful seasons before turning very old very suddenly. Whatever would be the golf equivalent of two healthy NFL seasons feels like Tiger's upside — a couple wins here or there, maybe contending in a major or two. Like Manning, he appears to have used eight of his lives athletically, at a minimum. The next serious injury will presumably be the last.
If Woods is somehow able to beat the odds and make a full-time return in peak health, embroidering on his legacy will involve another steep challenge, in the form of the young lions he inspired to take up the game in the first place. Watching Tiger paired with Rory McIlroy at the final round of the 2015 Masters, a seasoned Woods observer commented that it reminded him of watching John McEnroe return to professional tennis in the late 80's following a self-imposed hiatus. McEnroe was largely the same, but the game had changed. Advances in technology had rendered his meticulous serve and volley game quaint. A new generation of players had ushered in an era of 130-mph serves and cannon-shot groundstrokes. McEnroe was still the craftiest knife fighter in the game, but he was now wielding a knife at a gunfight. In the era of Dustin Johnson and Jason Day routinely striping 350-yard drives down fairway after fairway — essentially a supersized version of Tiger at his peak — it is challenging to imagine how under the best of circumstances Woods could reinvent his game to compete with these new realities. Not impossible, but challenging.
For those of us roughly his age, who have taken great joy in his exploits through the years, the possibility of a successful third act to Tiger's career holds a powerful nostalgic appeal. Nothing would delight me more. But most of the time we know how this ends — we know from Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan or Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays. An avid sports fan and historian, Tiger knows this too. This week he stopped to consider whether a missed cut at the Safeway Open was any way for a legend to spend his remaining time in the spotlight.