Tiger Has Nothing Left to Prove and His Legacy is Secure
IF, as he suggested might be the case, Tiger Woods never again plays a competitive round of golf it will be a shame, a real shame. But he had a pretty good innings, didn't he?
He won 14 majors by the time he was 32 years of age and a total of 79 victories on the PGA Tour, second only to Sam Snead. In total, he won 106 professional tournaments. At one point in his career he had a win ratio of 25%. Just stop and think about that for a moment - he was winning one of every four tournaments in which he played.
He shattered records at The Masters, the US Open and The Open Championship. He hit the ball a mile, often miles wide of the fairway. But Woods would find the ball and, more often than not, produce a miraculous recovery shot. However, it was on and around the greens that this man truly entered a class of his own. Has there ever been anybody who holed more putts when he needed to do so? Has there ever been a golfer who comes anywhere close to Woods and his ability to simply will the ball into the hole?
It is often recorded that his last major victory was way back in 2008, when he took 91 holes to beat Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. During the five days of that tournament, Mediate, who was often 100 yards behind Woods off the tee, played the golf of his life. Woods? He played with a broken leg. He played with a broken leg - and he won the tournament!
When he burst upon the professional scene in 1996 as a 20 year old he already had an astonishing amateur career behind him. He won the US Amateur Championship three times for goodness sake. He wasted little time winning his first PGA Tour event but when he arrived at Augusta for the 1997 Masters, few people were prepared for what they were about to witness. Playing with defending champion Nick Faldo, he took 40 shots to complete the front nine. And then something happened. Something we would see many, many times over the years that followed...
He moved up a gear. Tiger played the back nine in 30 and would go on to win the tournament with a total of 270 - a record. Oh yes, and he won the thing by 12 shots. Another record. At the age of 21. Yes, another record. He won the 2000 US Open by 15 shots. Another record. He won The Open weeks later by eight shots. When he won The Masters in 2001 he became the first man to simultaneously hold all four of the sport's majors. He was the youngest man to win all four. He was the youngest to win all four twice. On and on the records went. It seemed that every time he teed the ball up he broke another one.
And his rivals were terrified of him. Colin Montgomerie openly admitted that when he saw Tiger's name on a leaderboard then he gave up all hope of winning. He wasn't the only one.
It is tragic that Woods' career seems to have been brought to a premature conclusion by the very thing that helped to make him the player he was. Tiger was a gym rat, spending hours pumping iron, building up his body. He put that body under enormous pressure, both in the gym and on the golf course. Eventually, it gave out on him. He is now recovering from his fourth back surgery. But there have knee operations, shoulder surgery, achilles problems - the list goes on. Earlier this year the world also discovered that he had become addicted to painkillers. His arrest for being in charge of a car while under the influence of drugs was the lowest point, probably even sadder than the public humiliation he suffered when it was revealed that he was a serial adulterer.
The world forgave him for his adultery because he had shown that he was vulnerable, that he was not the superman we had perceived him to be. He was human. And because he had faults, we willed him to come back better than before. He took time out after the revelations about his private life and although he managed to cling on to the world No 1 ranking and contend in several more majors, the last time we saw the real Tiger Woods was at that incredible US Open in 2008.
He has battled hard against the ravages of time but, with his 42nd birthday approaching, even Tiger has been forced to face up to the face that on this occasion the battle may finally be over. And, in truth, nobody who saw him in his prime would want to witness him battling to break 80, fluffing straightforward chips, failing to get out of bunkers and wincing in pain after another wayward drive.
Nick Faldo said that watching Jack Nicklaus win The Masters on TV was what inspired him to take up golf. Ask any golfer under the age of 35 on the PGA or European Tour to name their hero and, to a man, they will chorus: "Tiger Woods."
So who was the best? I had the privilege of seeing both men in their prime. If you go by the record books then the answer must be Nicklaus, who won 18 majors. The Golden Bear left nothing to chance, plotting his way round the course. You would never see him missing a fairway by 40 or 50 yards. And, like Woods, he was a genius on the greens, always holing the putts that really mattered. Nicklaus was a class act. Unlike Woods, he was a good loser, always prepared to congratulate the man who played better than he did. During the final round of The Open at Turnberry in 1977, the famous Duel in the Sun, he turned to Tom Watson and said: "This is what it is all about Tom." Can you imagine Woods saying anything at all to his opponent in a final pairing with a major at stake? Except maybe: "Bad luck."
Nicklaus also made time for the fans. He was happy to sign autographs and chat with spectators at the end of his round, no matter how poorly he played. He never cussed, he never swore and he never spat. Woods was a master of all three.
Jack thrived in the team environment. Woods loved representing his country but he never really got the Ryder Cup and did not find it easy to mix with his peers. But Woods had and has a charisma that Nicklaus lacked. And he was capable of producing Ballesteros-like recovery shots that Nicklaus would not have seen, far less tried to play.
Would Woods have surpassed Jack's total of 18 majors had he remained fit? Even the Golden Bear said many years ago that he expected Tiger to win at least 24 majors. We will never know for sure, but surely he would have done.
So what next? Now that he seems to have accepted that his playing days are over, it is to be hoped that Tiger does not walk away from the game. He has a huge amount to offer, especially to the game's young guns, the men who seek to emulate him. He will surely become more actively involved with his foundation and don't be surprised to see him popping up from time to time as an analyst on the Golf Channel.
But here's a thought. Having built and rebuilt his swing on at least three separate occasions, Tiger Woods understands the mechanics of striking a golf ball as well as any man on the planet. He couldn't turn his hand to teaching, could he? Probably not.
No matter what Woods decides to do with his future, and if it really is all over, we should all say: "Tiger, you may have been a flawed human being, but you were a stunning golfer. Thanks for the memories."
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