Tiger Woods: Golf's game changer now clinging on by fingernails

Rory McIlroy’s tribute an acknowledgement that Woods will always be a great

Tiger Woods radically changed the profile of golf and transformed the earning power of the field. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Tiger Woods radically changed the profile of golf and transformed the earning power of the field. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

 

‘You da maaaaan.” It was the cat-call of worship heard from behind the ropes during the Tiger Woods era of golf; trailer-trash vulgar by the rarefied tastes of elite golf and it echoed through a brief tribute by Rory McIlroy which rang clear and true in the white noise of sports this week: “Wishing my idol and friend a speedy recovery. Golf without him doesn’t bear thinking about.”

In another week crowded with achievement and scandal, the Irishman’s observation, posted on Instagram beneath a photograph in which he appears with Woods, was quickly overlooked. But it was as startling as it was brief. And somewhere above Woods’ past achievements and the coming decade, which McIlroy hopes to makes his own, hovers Jack Nicklaus’s legacy of 18 Majors, seemingly as untouchable now as it ever was.

On December 30th of this year, Tiger Woods will mark and perhaps even celebrate his 40th birthday. He had won his 14 major golf tournaments by the age of 32 and at that stage seemed perfectly placed to eclipse Nicklaus.

“This guy’s the best out there and the best of all time,” Woods told Lorne Rubenstein in a confessional interview he did for Time magazine this week. It wasn’t quite an admission that he will never catch Nicklaus. But because of a combination of circumstances – the lurid manner in which his private life became public; a series of sudden and debilitating injuries; age; the emergence of a new generation of golfers; and, finally, the staggering demise of his game last year – it is difficult to imagine Woods ever challenging for a Major again.

Turning 40, he is a veteran in a sport that has – thanks mainly to him – become a young man’s game. Over a year has passed since he let swing coach Sean Foley go and as recently as this summer his former caddy Butch Harmon said that he felt Woods looked “lost” in his attempt to find a comfortable swing. For more than a decade, the power and grace with which Woods drove the ball seemed like such a natural part of who he was that it didn’t seem possible he could unlearn it.

Decent round

After undergoing back surgery at the end of March in 2014, he was an absentee from that year’s US Masters and US Open, and by his own admission he last played a decent round of golf in February

His collapse at The Open in St Andrews this year was one of the most uncomfortable and cruel moments of modern sport. Regardless of anyone’s views on how Woods has carried himself as a public figure or as a human being, there was something terrible about watching a man bewildered at being confronted by the fact that he no longer understood the one aspect of life he had truly mastered. The short conclusion to draw from all of this is that Woods is finished as a golfer.

Second Captains

His haughty demeanour during his elite years and the unravelling of a fiercely guarded public image and the moral judgments on his personal life ensured he was never going to be the most-loved superstar athlete on the planet. And there are bound to be many observers who feel that he deserves this desertion of brilliance, this humbling as an athlete.

The news that he has been chosen by David Love III as a vice-captain for next year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in Minnesota means that regardless of the health of his game, he will play a part in one of the prestige events – albeit one for which he could scarcely contain his lack of interest in the early part of his career.

The return of golf to the summer Olympics for the first time since 1904 has, barring a miracle, come too late for Woods: the field of 60 players may include no more than four players from each country, making the selection for the US team a competition within itself. For most of his life, that wouldn’t have been a problem for Woods, who sat immovable at number one on the world rankings for 648 weeks. As of this weekend, he is ranked 400th in the world.

For all of golf’s – and Nike’s – wishful thinking, the fairway rivalry between McIlroy, golf’s new prodigy, and Woods, the original of the species, never really materialised. The Tiger myth had been bust open by the time McIlroy hit full stride and even if Woods periodically hit a rich vein of form, his chilling ability to hold all competitors in a state of hypnosis was gone. Still, he was the golfer who McIlroy wanted to “be” in his childhood and adolescence and that, surely, was what prompted his message this week.

Is golf unthinkable without Woods? On the surface, not at all. The greats are replaced – just ask the Golden Bear – and it has, thanks to Woods, established a niche as an ideal sport for the global television market. And the decline or end of Tiger Woods is not going to see a drop in green-fees around the world.

Green jacket

But what McIlroy was getting at, surely, was that Woods was the game-changer. If Lee Elder was the first African-American to play the Masters at Augusta in 1975, then Woods was the first to go and win the green jacket 22 years later.

He radically changed the profile of golf – even if the conceit of Woods bringing golf to the ghetto kids was a cynical joke – and transformed the earning power of the field. And at his best, he played the game with such withering consistency and overwhelming excellence that the rest were simply an exceptionally well-paid support cast.

Make of his recent interview with Time what you will. Woods talks about the mess he made of his marriage and how he has explained his mistakes to his children. He acknowledges how his life has been both phenomenon and commodity – “my only peace has been in between the ropes and hitting the shots”. There are hints of the residual frat-boy humour – “Put it this way, I’m glad my Dad didn’t name me Richard”. It is, by all previous comparisons, an undeniably candid attempt to lay himself open.

You can easily interpret it as just another strategic move in recasting the brand and, perhaps, paving the way for life after golf. But maybe it also a genuine effort at self-reflection by someone who, from his first appearance on the Mike Douglas show as a three-year-old, has been rigidly disciplined in the projection of an invincible, untouchable persona; the golfer Messiah. And maybe it is worth considering the comments made by Sean Foley after they parted ways: “Anything he does great doesn’t get mentioned; anything he doesn’t is all over the place.”

Tiger Woods is clinging on to golf by his fingernails as the year ends. It would be something if he could emulate the Golden Bear and hit one or two unstoppable streaks during the Majors he will play in his 40s. It would be something if he could win one now that he seems to be figuring out who the hell he is.

But that could never happen. Could it?

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