There are sports that define an athlete. And then there are athletes that define a sport. Tiger Woods fits the latter category. And like all great athletes, Tiger comes in two versions—winning Tiger and losing Tiger.
As for which version of Tiger will show up in the 2014 season, it’s difficult to speculate. But let’s tee up both possibilities and see where the ball might land.
He may not have won a major championship in the last five years, but let’s face it, Tiger Woods knows how to win. And he’s got fourteen major victories in his 18-year career to prove it.
Sure, he’s not the same physical specimen who once served notice that golf is a sport and its players are athletes, but Tiger is still a fierce competitor who, despite his age and injuries, still has remarkable skills and knows how to use them.
Along with a bag full of high performance clubs—his latest addition being the formidable and forgiving Nike Covert 2.0 driver—Tiger brings a wealth of experience and a winning track record to every tournament.
To the naysayers who argue that Tiger’s five-year drought has derailed his dream of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories, statisticians point out that, in winning 14 majors out of 64 played by age 38, Tiger is neck-and-neck with Nicklaus at that age.
And while acknowledging that he is not the golfer he was in his twenties, Woods reminds us that other notable players have won more than one major title in their forties. This includes Nicklaus, who won his 15th major five months before turning 39 and went on to win three more by the time he turned 46.
At a press conference before the 2014 Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Tiger said it best in terms of his chances of having a winning season:
“I still work my tail off to be ready to compete at this level and beat everyone that I'm playing against.”
In his younger days, Tiger Woods affirmed once and for all, that golf is a sport and that its players are athletes. But age, injuries and five consecutive years without a major victory are painful indicators that Tiger’s roaring glory days are over.
Yes, he had five wins in 2013—not to mention being voted PGA player of the year by his peers. But finishing 80th at Torrey Pines recently—a course he once consistently owned—followed by placing 41st at the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic, is not a great way to kick off the 2014 season.
Tiger recently turned 38. But chances are it’s the mileage, not the years that have finally caught up with him.
In fact, Tiger’s list of accumulated injuries reads more like that of an NFL player than a PGA golfer. A torn ACL in his left knee, a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, a bulging cervical disc, a stress-fractured tibia and chronic elbow and back issues all have taken their toll on Tiger’s game. He’s even had to redesign his swing to make it more forgiving on his battle-worn body.
And then there’s Tiger’s mental game.
Although he tries to downplay it, the pressure—both external and internal—to beat Nicklaus’ record has got to be messing with Woods' game between the ears.
Of course, getting one more major win in his 39th year, as Nicklaus did, would no doubt relieve a great deal of that pressure. But in reality, that illusive 15th win only puts more pressure on Tiger to deliver in 2014—a year that many in the media have proclaimed as Tiger Woods' “must-win” season, as Doug Ferguson of PGA.com argued.
Which of the two Tigers will show up in 2014? While that’s impossible to predict, it will be fascinating to watch as one of golf’s greatest players continues his quest to step out of Nicklaus’ shadow into a legendary light of his own.