So much for life beginning at 40. For Tiger Woods, the milestone he passed on 30 December cannot have felt less like a beginning.
There is an overwhelming sense that Woods is done. And even if you refuse to accept that, it is surely impossible to argue that he is done with being Tiger Woods. A staggering press conference in the Bahamas all but confirmed it.
Nobody expected it from Woods. As the media congregated to listen to the host of the Hero World Challenge, nobody in that press centre anticipated anything other than his usual defiance. No, Woods did not deliver the definitive resignation speech; but there was most definitely resignation in his speech. And we had never heard that before.
Woods was often ridiculed for limping into media tents, clutching a form-sheet as wretched as his medical notes, and insisting he was there ‘to win’, while vehemently denying anything whatsoever had changed in his outlook. It was the only certainty that was left with Tiger – the red-shirted one who was always such a certainty on those Sunday afternoons. Well, hey, the physique was in tatters but at least the psyche was still intact.
Yet now it has followed his frame and begun to fall apart. Woods not only veered off the script of the past six years, he yanked at the steering wheel and sent his career inexorably up that road to retirement. ‘There is nothing really I can look forward to,’ he said, his clear discomfort as much to do with the admission as his aching back.
As journalists sat there agog, Woods flew into orbit; that rarefied atmosphere he had steadfastly refused to visit before, at least not in public. He all but conceded his immortal match with Jack Nicklaus. ‘I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy,’ he said. ‘I’m still shy of Jack’s record [18 Majors to Woods’ 14] but in my 20 years out here, I think I’ve achieved a lot. And if that’s all it entails, I’ve had a pretty good run. I’m hoping I can get back out there and compete against these guys. But if that’s not the case, I’ll find other avenues; growing my foundation, course design and other projects that will certainly take up more of my time.’
At least he will then be able to take leave from his PlayStation. Woods’ confession that he spends his days playing computer games was sad enough. But then to go further and reveal that he mutes the volume so those he is playing against cannot hear who he is drove the scenario way beyond pitiful. To think the most recognisable competitor of this sporting generation is now trying to be the most anonymous. That is the hole is he in.
And what makes it worse is just two years ago – before the trio of surgeries which has reduced him to spinal servitude – he won five of the PGA Tour’s biggest events and was crowned Player of the Year. Furthermore, his is a pursuit in which the professionals can win Majors long beyond the 40-year mark. Golf is taunting him, saying ‘come on, Vijay did it, so did Phil and Ernie’. Except, Woods is not like them, neither in body or celebrity.
Woods is a very old 40, having undergone multiple operations on his knees as well as his back. Just to launch another comeback will be a huge ask but after that the demands will become truly absurd. The circus will pitch up again, the spotlight will zoom in and there will be absolutely no chance of gentle progression in the shadows. From the outset, he will be compared to the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroys, and those contrasts will be as kind as they are helpful.
McIlroy must recognise the forlornness of the task. After the press conference, the Irishman tweeted ‘Wishing my idol and friend a speedy recovery. Golf without him doesn’t bear thinking about. Hope to see you back on the course soon.’
However, for Tiger it will be him without golf. And now that he has started thinking about it, the reality will inevitably follow, although at least his priorities now seem to be in order.
Two days after the press conference, a rare one-on-one interview was published in which Woods delved deep into his personal life. It was one thing hearing him finally recognising his mortality as a sportsman, but quite another to read him revealing that he had started preparing his children (Sam, 8 and Charlie, 6) for the day they are old enough to discover all about their father’s multiple affairs.
‘I’ve taken the initiative with the kids, and told them up front, “Guys, the reason we’re not in the same house, we don’t live under the same roof, Mommy and Daddy, is because Daddy made some mistakes,”’ Woods told Lorne Rubenstein. ‘I just want them to understand before they get to internet age and they log on to something or have their friends tell them something … When they come of age, I’ll tell them the real story … But meanwhile, it’s just, “Hey, Daddy made some mistakes”. I’d rather have it come from me, and I can tell them absolutely everything.’
Woods’ Q&A with Time magazine – undertaken to coincide with his 40th birthday – has already entered golfing folklore as ‘the most candid interview of his career’. In it, he claimed that Elin, his former wife, is ‘one of his best friends’ and expressed regret that he did not realise what was ‘most important’ during the scandal which broke in 2009.
‘In hindsight, it’s not how I would change 2009 and how it all came about. It would be having a more open, honest relationship with my ex-wife,’ Woods said. ‘Having the relationship I have now with her is fantastic. She’s one of my best friends. We’re able to pick up the phone, and we talk to each other all the time. We both know the most important things in our lives are our kids. I wish I would have known that back then.’
There is a clear sense that Woods feels he is, in some way, making up for what he once famously called ‘my transgressions’ and although the cynics will doubtless raise their eyebrows, he describes a poignant moment when his daughter found him after he first succumbed to spinal problems.
‘I’ll never forget when I really hurt my back and it was close to being done, I was practising out back at my house. I hit a flop shot over the bunker, and it just hit the nerve. And I was down. I didn’t bring my cell phone … and I couldn’t move,’ he says. ‘Well, thank God my daughter’s a daddy’s girl. She came out and said, “Daddy, what are you doing lying on the ground?” I said, “Sam, thank goodness you’re here. Can you go tell the guys inside to try and get the cart out, to help me back up?”’
But who helps him up now? Who puts him back on the fairway and reinstates the self-belief which established him as an all-time sporting great? Only Woods can do this and from his comments it does not sound as if the fight is there. Even though he would love to continue, he is ready for the end.
‘Put it this way. It’s not what I want to have happen, and it’s not what I’m planning on having happen. But if it does, it does. I’ve reconciled myself to it,’ Woods said. ‘It’s more important for me to be with my kids. I don’t know how I could live with myself not being able to participate in my kids’ lives like that. That, to me, is special.’