It used to be common knowledge that golf was an older man’s game. Golfers' careers started much more slowly than athletes in other sports, and could extend much later.
Then came Tiger Woods.
Tiger redefined the way the public looks at the career trajectories of pro golfers. Part of the reason that Tiger’s career is so easy to hyperbolize is because he accomplished so much at such a young age for his sport.
But all the evidence points to one simple conclusion—that Tiger Woods' days of winning major championships are over.
Once upon a time it seemed inevitable that Tiger would one day win more majors than any player in history. His career had gotten off to such a historic start that perpetual dominance seemed like an inevitability.
What golf fans didn’t realize at the time though, was that Woods wasn’t redefining the number of years of dominant play a champion could have.
He just got started sooner than anyone we had seen.
By having his prime come so early, he had created an erroneous sense of longevity that is frankly unrealistic for any golfer.
A golfer’s prime—in terms of winning majors—is usually about 6-12 years. Nicklaus was dominant from 1962 to 1975, a little more than even the high end of most great players' careers. Hogan did it from 1946 to 1953. Palmer enjoyed his stretch between 1958 and 1964.
Woods has had a remarkable, at times unprecedented, run at the top of the golfing world. Even if you discount the 2003-2004 period when he first reinvented his swing, he has still enjoyed 10 years of top-level play.
But Woods has now reached the end of his prime, and even though he is much younger than his contemporaries were when they stopped winning, he has regressed just as much.
There are many reasons that a player in any sport cannot remain at the top forever. In Woods’ case, it seems that his dominance has been cut short by injuries.
The physical maladies that Tiger has suffered in recent years are not the kind that are easily rehabbed or recovered from. They are devastating injuries, which can (and have) ended players' careers.
When Tiger first burst onto the national scene, many thought that he represented a new kind of champion who could remain great for much, much longer than champions past.
Instead, he represented a new generation of player who would be capable of winning much earlier in their careers. Expecting him to replicate the trajectories of former legends was simply a mistake on the part of media outlets and sporting fans.
In Tiger’s early years, we can see a blueprint for a new kind of golfer—players who are able to start winning on grand stages at a younger age than those before them. But to think that they will be able to continue to dominate from their early 20s to their late 40s is fallacious.
Tiger's decline is really the simple, natural progression of a career that has followed what is, in a sense, a standard path. X number of years of development (these years vary wildly depending on the player) + roughly 5-10 years of greatness + anywhere from around 3-10 years of declined, yet effective play, followed by a natural drop-off out of contention for good.
Injuries have shortened what should have been Tiger’s declining years. Instead of slowly coming to a halt, he dropped off a cliff. That is simply what injuries do. They kill careers and leave people wondering what would have happened if…?
They say that a basketball player only has so many jumps in his legs. Once he's out of jumps, he's done. There's nothing that can be done about it.
Really, this isn't specific to just basketball players. Baseball pitchers only have a certain number of throws in their arm. Running backs only have a certain amount of hits they can take. It seems that Tiger Woods may be out of golf swings.
A golf swing, especially Tiger’s golf swing, is a combination of violent torque and powerful lower body explosion. Any player, no matter how great they once were, cannot have the same explosiveness and power with Achilles tendons and knee ligaments that have both undergone several surgical procedures.
At this point, Tiger Woods is living off of reputation, and the ghosts of his own legend. But even this is starting to erode. Opponents don’t fear Tiger the way they once did. They have seen what his game is these days, and it is nothing to be afraid of.
While Woods’ past accomplishments will keep him in the mind of the public for many more years, they aren’t doing him any good on the golf course. His game has fallen apart. His image has fallen apart. His dominance has disappeared completely.
So even though many people will expect Woods to one day return to his major-winning form, those people are ignoring the signs that Tiger is done:
He has suffered multiple injuries that have left his game in shambles.
He is in the midst of a massive rebuilding project on the golf course, which is never a good sign for a champion.
His opponents no longer view him as a threat.
He now has younger, healthier, better players (like Rory McIlroy) to compete with.
Most importantly his prime, by every indicator available (including the entirety of golf’s history), is over—and probably has been for a couple years now.
15 years ago, Tiger Woods seemed to be redefining the career arc of a champion. Today it seems that his path was not actually so different from anyone before him.
Some people will read this article and believe that I hate Tiger Woods, that I never want him to win again. This is not the case. I love watching great players at any time, in any sport, and Tiger is certainly a great player. Or at least he was.
I’m just reading the street signs on the avenue of Woods’ career, and what they are telling me is painfully obvious; the guy is done. His career has run its course.
And in the end, that course was a much more conventional one than people thought.