Word associations can be most revealing — in sport and life. Memories equals past. Production equals present. Competition equals future.
Tiger Woods turned 45 on the eve of the New Year on December 30. In spite of a 2020 year that marked his complete lack of competitiveness, the 15-time major winner remains for much of the media and golf’s global fan base the center point of attention.
As 2019 moved into the rear-view mirror and 2020 began, the expectations for Woods were sky high. Tiger won his 5th green jacket in April 2019 and following a late season surgery earned a record tying 82nd PGA TOUR win in Japan in late October of that year. His world ranking skyrocketed to 6th and the chatterbox was incessant — Tiger is once again heading to the top of golf’s pyramid.
Birthdays have always been cited as milestones. However, the celebration is often skewed towards past accomplishments. The Woods golf ledger of successes is overwhelming in its overall scope. A myriad of triumphs and benchmarks likely never to be matched — yet alone surpassed. But those moments are now being anchored more and more in the distant past. The seismic shock waves Tiger caused left indelible marks on the various competitors he upstaged and inspired a new generation of players pushing themselves in a similar manner.
Golf fans, like others throughout sport, have always had a difficult time in letting go of their treasured superstars. That list includes the likes of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Always seeking more and never being satisfied. Woods at each level not only obliged but even pushed boundaries beyond human comprehension. Although Tiger epically arrived at the ’97 Masters his cumulative successes marked the beginning of a new century. Yet with the arrival of 2021 it is clear time and tide wait for no man — including Tiger Woods.
In ordinary life someone turning 45 is not especially noteworthy. But, like all other sports, there’s a new generation — a bevy of supremely talented players who greatly admire what Woods has achieved. However, they’re not intimidated as past rivals were because the Woods they see today is no longer the feared Tiger of yesteryear. None will say so publicly out of immense respect for Woods, but the body language is clear for those with eyes to see.
Consider the most recent time line.
Woods has played in six major championships since his Augusta win and the results are striking – three missed cuts and never remotely being in contention during the weekend in the other three. The most striking came at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage. Woods was just weeks from his win at Augusta and paired with Brooks Koepka — a three-time major winner, defending champion and ranked number one in the world. The juxtaposition was clear; the long-time number one player combatting a young lion looking to supplant him. Koepka demolished Tiger — opening up with rounds of 63-65 to Tiger’s 72-73 and missed cut. The Tiger on Long Island looked frail and tired.
FedEx Cup Standings
Fast forward to the November 2020 Masters and Woods opened with a personal best 68 at Augusta. He was just three shots off the lead and poised to make a strong defense. Woods retreated with a second round 71 and progressively scored higher with each round thereafter — including a mindboggling 10 at the 12th hole on Sunday. To be fair — Woods finished off the final round with five birdies on the final six holes but a tie for 38th was hardly what Tiger had in mind after round one.
Yes, the 2019 Masters win by Tiger will forever be celebrated but in day-to-day terms the ripples from that triumph have long since settled down. Woods is now ranked 41st in the world and his planned PGA TOUR schedule will likely commence at the Farmers Insurance event at Torrey Pines in late January. From that point on it’s hard to say with any certainty where and when he will play.
Since playing 18 events in 2018 — Tiger has played in a smaller number of events in each succeeding year — 12 in 2018 and just 7 in 2019. Undoubtedly, Woods has attempted to prepare himself sufficiently for each start while, at the same time, not overextending himself given the fragile nature of his body. The net result has been a player unable to fashion four consecutive rounds of solid play. Playing more events would help with the rust but doing so puts Tiger at risk of being either injured or exhausting himself. Witness, the meltdown of his play at the 2018 Ryder Cup Matches in Paris just one week after his superior effort in claiming the title at The Tour Championship. Woods was playing on fumes and hardly a factor.
2021 will be major evaluation year for Woods. The four majors are scheduled for their usual time slots and the Ryder Cup Matches were rescheduled from 2020 to a late September time frame for this year.. Woods is now 17th in points for the USA team but it’s hard to make a compelling argument, at this point, he should be picked as a Captain’s choice as he was in 2018.
But there’s more than the golf side to consider. Woods is actively involved with his two children and recently competed with his son Charlie in the PNC Championship in Orlando. While his son received a considerable amount of media attention it was interesting to observe the bond father and son shared. For many seeing that side of Woods was something few had ever witnessed.
Coming up January 10 there will be the airing of a two-part series via Home Box Office (HBO) entitled, “Tiger”. The documentary will showcase the life of Woods — the highlights and the lowlights. The telecast will itemize more than his glowing achievements on the course but his relationship with his parents, his failed marriage and subsequent infidelities, arrest, usage of drugs and comeback in golf.
The Woods fan base has certainly moved on and wants to see Tiger return to the form that made him the premier global athlete for a number of years. That desire is not framed in reality. The broader issue for Woods in 2021 is how long will he desire to compete? At the 2019 Masters, Tiger had to awaken by 3;30 AM in order to be ready for a 7:30 AM tee time. His body is now fragile and he himself knows that more than anyone else. The bigger issue is does the passion to compete still burn within him and if the golf performances do not measure up how long will the desire to continue remain? Nicklaus said it succintly when the shadows enveloped his career that he did not wish to play on the highest stage simply as a “ceremonial golfer.”
If 2021 showcases a Tiger mired in mediocrity the unspoken question of retirement will grow louder. For many ardent fans of Woods, just the hint of such a discussion is deemed ludicrous but for Woods winning has always been the center point. Not just showing up — not barely making cuts nor finishing in the top ten. Arguably, no sportsmen has ever demonstrated such an insatiable and maniacal desire to not only win but summarily crush all those that stood in his way. That is the Tiger who hunted so efficiently during his prime and vanquished all serious contenders with such unrelenting drive. How ironic the hunter is the one hunted now.
The golf displayed by Woods at his premier best has been rightly celebrated as the finest any human being has ever displayed in the sport. It’s not likely Tiger will tie, let alone surpass, the record of 18 majors set by Nicklaus. Yet, his sustained body of work culminating with his climbing the comeback mountain culminating in his 2019 Masters victory is among the most savored wins golf has ever witnessed.
Each time Woods enters the arena in 2021 the focus will be laser-like on what he does — it’s been that way since his ascension to the golf stage starting as a junior player from Southern California.
But, now at age 45 the sands in the hourglass are picking up momentum. One wishes for one more defining moment from Woods but no one knows better than Tiger that unless this year is truly special that the end on golf’s highest stage is now an issue that cannot be denied.