On 10 October, just days after confirming his entry, Tiger Woods withdrew from the Safeway Open. It was to be his first competitive appearance in over a year. As has been pointed out countless times, it is a testament to Woods’ stardom that news regarding the 40-year-old is met with the type of interest that no other golfer has ever been able to generate. For the last several years, however, this interest has not been backed up by performances.
After a superb 2013 season in which he was victorious five times on the way to being named Player of the Year, Woods’ game has been plagued with injury and an embarrassing lack of form. It was a cringeworthy experience to watch the 14-time major champion succumb to the infamous “yips” en-route to a career-worst round of 82 at the Phoenix Open in January 2015. This was followed by an even worse score of 85 at the Memorial Tournament later that year. In this time, golf has reached a new level of competitiveness with the emergence of a wealth of elite players such as Jordan Speith, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson. While they have battled for dominance and majors, Woods has sat on the sidelines, either recovering from surgery on a recurrent back problem or choosing not to compete, aware that his current game is not at a level where he can compete with the best. Now ranked 802nd in the world, Woods’ latest event withdrawal seems ominous.
When he returned after the absence that followed his 2009 scandal, the question on everybody’s mind was whether Woods could continue his prolific record in major championships. Now it is uncertain whether he will even be able to meet the standards required on tour at all. It is not just his ability, but also his age, which is now in question. Golf is a sport where reaching a certain age does not necessarily mean the end of a career; Jack Nicklaus won his last major at 46, the same at which Phil Mickelson has competed in the Open Championship and been an integral American Ryder Cup player. However, in Woods’ case, age, and perhaps injury, seem to have deprived him of the young, ruthless personality that saw him become one of the most successful sportsmen of all time.
Not only is he a different golfer than the one who seemed unbeatable in the 2000s, but he is also a different man. When, in 2014, Woods was asked about his recovery from recent surgery, his first response was not to assess his game and when he might return, but instead to speak pensively on the pain of not being able to play with his two children, Sam and Charlie. Age has not necessarily affected Woods’ ability to compete, but it has perhaps hindered his desire. He has admitted that the days when he would practice tirelessly for 14 hours a day, even immediately after winning major tournaments, are gone. The intense single-mindedness which allowed him to be so successful in high-pressure situations seems to have depleted. It was this ruthlessness that perhaps accounted for Woods’ famously poor record in the team-based Ryder Cup.
This year, however, he served as a vice-captain, no longer the centre of attention but instead an experienced head in the team room, seemingly relishing the role of mascot to the younger players. There seems to be some suggestion that Woods may grow into the legendary elder statesman role played so well by the likes of Nicklaus, Gary Player and the late Arnold Palmer. He now has other interests outside the ropes as well. After numerous failed attempts while his playing career was in full swing, Woods finally opened his first self-designed golf course, Bluejack National. The course is purposely designed to be enjoyable without posing too much of a challenge, and the surrounding facilities have a family-friendly atmosphere.
To add to this, last year Woods opened his first restaurant and sports bar, the Woods Jupiter, in a swanky premises near his home. Clearly, Woods is planning for life after golf and, to some extent, that life has perhaps already begun. If and when he returns, expectations will be as low as any of his comebacks to date. Nonetheless, the player that will eventually tee up once more will be one who has replaced an obsessive practice regime with time spent enjoying his family and running his businesses. Today, Woods is a player for whom winning golf tournaments is no longer the most important thing in life.