Deterioration

But I think [Tiger] has entered a new phase, where he will contend occasionally, like other golfers. He has entered a phase where it will be difficult to play well for four rounds. He has entered a phase where those 10-foot putts that were automatic will not be automatic anymore. I think things have changed for Tiger Woods, and they’re not going back. You can’t ever go back. And I don’t know how he is going to handle that. Nobody knows how he will handle it. Over the weekend, on one of his favorite courses, he looked lost. His swing was off. His short game was off. His putting was off. Yes, it was just his first tournament, but Tiger has always done really well in his first tournament — this was part of his game. He was always more ready to go when the seasons began than anyone else.

Joe Posnanski, on Tiger Woods

I’ve recently started watching ESPN’s excellent “30 for 30” series, a collection of thirty short film documentaries (most run just short of an hour) on notable events in sports over the last three decades. They’re shot like good short films with notable directors, each telling a popular period story (e.g., the death of Len Bias, Baltimore Colts moving to Indianapolis, O.J. Simpson’s arrest), often from a unique perspective.

One of the most harrowing pieces is about Muhammad Ali, who at 38 years old tried to rekindle the old magic in a fight with heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. It uses lots of original footage from 1980 during Ali and Holmes’ training leading up to the fight combined with a few modern day anecdotes from Ali’s former trainers and a post-retirement Larry Holmes. Then, the fight.

Ali lost, and not just embarrassingly. Painfully. Tragically. In trying to resurrect the past, Ali just subjected his body to blow-after-blow at an age when he really couldn’t take it anymore. Eventually, the physical toil left him a Parkinsons-ravaged elderly man, a shell of who he once was.

It happens to every great one. Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, Emmitt Smith, Willy Mays, Mike Tyson, Pedro Martinez, Muhammed Ali. And now, Posnanski writes, Tiger Woods. They get old, hurt — worn down by decades of the unnatural abuse to which their respective sports subject their bodies. And then there’s the pain fans feel, watching their sports heroes limp, then crawl, toward the end of their careers.

Two years ago, we assumed that Tiger would eventually surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. He won the ’08 U.S. Open on essentially one leg, then after missing the rest of the season, stormed back in the 2009 Memorial Tournament* and everyone proclaimed Tiger Was Back. That was when he was still a good guy.

* (with dad and I in attendance. That day features a once-in-a-lifetime story I’ll give another time. It relates to Tiger, but I treasure it more because I experienced it on Father’s Day with my Dad.)

Then his dubious lifestyle caught up with him in the worst way—replete with public humiliation, terrible golf, and empty apologies. He hasn’t won a tournament since and doesn’t look all that close now. He’s 35, has had multiple knee surgeries, slinked his way through the 2010 season without seriously competing in a major championship, and continues to attract the bad rep. There was once a day when you could give me Tiger or the field in a major, and I’d take Tiger without much thought. No longer.

He’ll win again. Perhaps two or three more majors and maybe, if things go perfectly, enough to equal or pass Nicklaus after all. The media is starting to count against him now, and the Old Tiger seemed to respond to that kind of talk with a string of green jackets and claret jugs. But the longer he flails around the golf course, it becomes more questionable that he’ll be a truly elite golfer again. A return to his customary dominance is probably out of the question.

Before his first tournament this year, Tiger told reporters that he was striking the ball as well as he could expect in February. But he played horribly—leaving himself frustrated, disappointed, and probably confused. He tied for 44th over the weekend. He expects to be great, but it never used to be this hard.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop expecting Tiger to be the 25-year-old Tiger again. Perhaps, for his sake, it’s time for him to stop too.

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