SAN DIEGO — It seemed as symbolic as it was sad. There was the man, Eldrick Woods, the one and only Tiger, driving away into a coastal fog that, if it didn’t obscure his future—he’s done—it certainly did the future of golf.
Why does it always have to end like this for the great ones—injuries and ailments and worst of all an inability to perform with the magnificence they once did?
Willie Mays, stumbling around for the Mets, went out not even with a whimper but with an embarrassing tumble to the depths.
Is it nature getting the last laugh, Father Time cackling as he waves a bony finger? Is it inevitable?
A torn Achilles for Kobe Bryant one season, then a torn rotator cuff the next. The end is near, no matter what he thinks, no matter how hard he tries to regain what he once had, throwing in jumpers, slamming down dunks.
The end is also near for Tiger, beset by unending torment, a back that after surgery, layoffs and rehab seems destined to haunt him for the rest of a declining career.
A week ago at Phoenix, Woods simply couldn’t play, chipping like someone who’s never held a club before, but he said he felt fine. "Give him time. He needs time," said the experts. Yet he is 39, going on 60, and time is his enemy.
On Thursday in the opening round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, a course where he's had so many magnificent triumphs, including that memorable 2008 U.S. Open, Woods went 11 holes and then, the pain evident from his facial expression, walked off.
"It's frustrating," he said. "I was ready to go."
The hopes were there. So were the memories of the best of Tiger Woods. He had won nine times at Torrey, one of those triumphs as an amateur. "Let the legend grow," his late father Earl Woods said. And did it grow.
Seventy-nine PGA Tour victories, 14 majors, records at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, two of the most famous courses on the globe. Other pros dissolved in his presence. He was dominant. He was exciting. He was a rock star in spikes. He was a champion.
We may not have seen Babe Ruth or Bobby Jones, nor maybe Bill Russell of the Celtics or Ben Hogan. But there on the fairway, on the tube, was an athlete very much their equal. Never mind the personal life, the disillusionment. Frank Sinatra had his faults. He also had the voice. Women swooned. The way golf fans swooned when they witnessed Woods.
"In the hole," someone would scream on every tee shot. Stupid but understandable. He was one in a million.
Woods in his Sunday red shirt, because his Thai mother, Kultida, said for Asians red is a power color, charging at Augusta, ripping at Royal Liverpool, smashing away at Southern Hills. He wasn’t just a golfer, he was an attraction, and that’s what the game—any game, but particularly required by golf and tennis, sports without team loyalties—needed.
A star with one name. Beyonce. Michael. Tiger.
The entrepreneur Bill Veeck, who owned the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, among other teams, said if you had to depend on baseball fans who love the game to support your team, you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.
It’s the fringe people, the non-fans who drive the sport. Woods captivated those who wouldn’t know a slice from a hook. He brought in the non-fans—and the golf fans. There was no one like him since Arnold Palmer. There may be no one like him again.
Rory McIlroy is fantastic. He won the last two majors of 2014. He hits the ball a mile. He’s young and handsome. But he’s not Woods.
The elements were perfect for Tiger, a Stanford student, an African-American—an American, and that is a necessity to get to the heart of promotion and business in the U.S.—and a superb talent. Three U.S. Amateur titles, unprecedented. That cage-rattling Masters win as a rookie.
Woods gave us years of thrills. Then the sporting gods and his own body began to conspire against him, one thing after another. Two years ago, Woods won five tournaments. We thought he could last forever and return to his past glory at the majors. Now we wonder if he’ll last the month.
Bad chips. Bad tee shots. Worst of all, a bad back. Woods, assuming the physiotherapists work their magic and he doesn’t lurch at the ball one time too many, surely will return to competition. But it won’t be the same.
The confidence that very much seemed like arrogance has ebbed. Not once the last couple of tournaments did Woods repeat his once-familiar mantra, "I don’t enter unless I think I will win."
What the rest of us think is that an era is coming to an end, but it sure was special while it lasted.
Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.