Ed. note: This piece is the latest submission to Knockdown Presents, in which we're giving a platform to fresh new voices from around the golf world. For more on this venture, including how to submit your own stories, click here.
Nearly every time, I remember, he grimaced. Even when the microphone didn't pick up the sound, you could imagine the groan knocking against the back of his teeth. It was worst off the tee: The velocity of his follow through, the shift of weight to his left side, the crack, the wince, and then he'd hobble forward or double over. He frequently used his driver as an improvised cane, walking gingerly up the fairways. His week was accompanied by none of the usual accoutrements of his major championship routine — no hitting balls after the round, practice limited to nine holes per day, his prowling reduced to limping. This was Tiger Woods, wounded animal.
In the years since, we've come to know him this way: the busted Escalade, the tabloid revelations, the infidelities, the divorce; the dropped sponsorships, the press conference, the campaign to resuscitate his image; the long absences, the last-minute withdrawals, the loose drives, the wonky putter; the lost years, the sense that we were watching the finest golfer of his generation come undone in real time. But during that week at Torrey Pines, 10 years ago this June, we were still enjoying the glow of his halcyon days, and when night fell on Tiger Woods's performance at the 2008 U.S. Open, the legend was amplified.
He had survived five days, 91 holes, a tenacious adversary, and the pressure of one of his sport's marquee events, all on a bum knee and a broken leg. It was amazing, evidence of immortality even. What it was not was shocking: By the end of the third round, in which he unleashed the most transcendent, swaggering six holes of major championship golf this side of Arnie's charge at Cherry Hills, clawing out of a five-stroke deficit with two monstrous eagles and one chip-in birdie to emerge with a one-shot lead, it would have been difficult to find a single person not named Mediate who thought he'd lose.
Now, as Woods mounts yet another comeback, with the most recent of his 14 major championship titles nearing its 10th anniversary, it's hard not to feel sorrow; his has become a story about what it means to achieve and then to lose greatness, a tragedy of hubris in the face of those fickle creatures we call the sporting gods.
In hindsight, the five days and 91 holes of that long ago June appear to be one of those terrible moments in sports when the hinge of history swings abruptly, quietly shut. Of course, no one knew it at the time, least of all Woods himself. Golf invites this destinarian tendency in those who follow it closely. Every generation of fans exalts its own heroes, seeks meaning for them in the alignment of the stars. Parables are written, certain years studied for numerological signs. Nicklaus chased down fate on the back nine at Augusta in 1986. Palmer invented himself with six birdies on the first seven holes at Cherry Hills in 1960. Hogan brought Oakland Hills to its knees in 1951. These are mythical occurrences in the history of golf, passed down with no less sense of tradition than bards reciting The Odyssey. For a more than a decade it seemed that Tiger Woods would be protagonist of the same narrative, but if there's one lesson I've gleaned from the arc of his career, it's that life has a way of rewriting our stories for us.
No athlete who has experienced the pinnacle of success in his or her sport ever thinks this is it. No one plans his last triumph to be his last, though of course there must be a last. No one who has ever reached the highest echelons of success wants to relinquish the feeling, which so few ever experience, of being the best. A top athlete is an addict, always looking for the next fix. Where the gods come in is in determining when and how the last victory happens. Will it be the great champion's happy ending, in the twilight of his career, or will he have to slink off into the sunset unnoticed?
This is true, I think, even of those canny enough to go out on top, those who know they cannot endure the slow slipping-down into honorary entries and syrupy nostalgia that arrives with younger, stronger competitors. For one who has staked a claim on greatness, the fear of failure may eventually trump the desire to win. But the decision to retire early still goes against everything they’ve ever been taught about sport and skill and the love of the game, against the mystical, inborn quality — the unshakable certainty that they can and will emerge victorious — that made them great in the first place.
This phenomenon of the final victory forces great athletes to weigh the inevitable against the possible. That may be why early retirement is so romantically bittersweet, so frequently difficult for even the athletes themselves to fathom. Pete Sampras took a full year following his last U.S. Open win in 2002 — 12 months in which he did not play a single tournament — before finally announcing he was hanging it up. Michael Jordan retired four times from two sports (twice following championship three-peats, twice after ignominious defeats), apparently unable to accept losing as much as he was unable to accept not competing. Brett Favre continued on this very path, convinced he could have another golden season while simultaneously telling us this is it. That his lackluster play and off-the-field antics left him looking the fool might be the saddest part of all. You could almost sense the inner crisis he so publicly faced, and wished you could go back in time to warn him: Walk away.
For a long time I shared with many sports fans the foreordained sense that Woods's march toward Nicklaus' record, golf's Holy Grail, was unstoppable. It's now clear to any honest observer of the game that matching Nicklaus is, if not impossible, nearly so; given the cadre of young stars to emerge in the last decade, it's a far cry from finishing T-23 at the Farmer's Insurance Open to capturing another major, let alone four, and even if he managed such a feat, his legacy has already been irreparably tarnished. Maybe he deserves it. Maybe someone should have warned Tiger to be nicer, to clean up his act, to walk away. The sadness I feel is not for him, you see — hes never been likable, now even less so — but for the way in which we wake up one day and the athletes of our generation are no longer around. I want, in the final estimation, not to have missed it, that last shimmer of greatness, just because I wasn't looking.
It should be noted here that I believe desperately in the sporting gods. I believe in the cosmic meaning of comebacks and miracles and final victories. I believe in Torvill and Dean's perfect score for "Bolero." I believe in Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 after 20 attempts, just as I believe in Brandi Chastain's sports bra or Magic's sky hook. I believe in Ivanisevic on Centre Court, in the Red Sox battling from three games down against the Yankees, in Kerri Strug nailing the landing on one foot.
Of course, I have no direct line to the heavens. My letters to the gods go unanswered, too. That this fact frequently leaves me depressed is perhaps not uncommon: I remember that Jimmy Fallon's diehard Red Sox fan in Fever Pitch, finding himself in a similarly dark place, watches the Buckner game over and over, an eternal return of catastrophe. In my case, I revisit Michelle Kwan's exhibition skate at the post-Olympic gala in 2002, a breathtakingly composed and graceful take on "Fields of Gold" that seemed to nod at her losses to Sarah Hughes that year and Tara Lipinski in 1998. I watch it knowing that, going into Torino in 2006 as the favorite, she suffered a late injury that forced her to withdraw. In other words, I watch it knowing, as she cannot, that she has just missed her last, best chance. It is impossible, if you understand anything about winning and losing, anything about unrequited desires, indeed anything about the bass note of grief that pulses through sport as it does through life, to watch it without crying.
Most top golfers do not, in the traditional sense of the term, retire "early." It is not unheard of for players nearing 50 to win PGA Tour events. Because golf is a streaky game, in which a wily veteran with some knowledge of the course and a little patience can stare down the flatbellies and come out ahead, it is predisposed to the Cinderella stories of aging warriors. Gene Sarazen made an ace in the British Open at the age of 71, while Sam Snead, a comparatively tender 62, finished third at the 1973 PGA. In the 1998 Masters, the Geriatric Masters, 66-year-old Gay Brewer opened with an even-par 72, only three off the lead; 62-year-old Gary Player made the cut; 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus charged once more to finish sixth (two strokes better than defending champion Woods); and 41-year-old Mark O'Meara won the tournament by sinking a slippery sidehill 20-footer on the last.
The underbelly to all this good feeling emerges when these elder statesmen invariably fall short. Golf, it seems, is also predisposed to breaking spirits. Witness Tom Watson at the 2009 British Open, initially just a feel-good sideshow to the tournament's through-line. He opened with 65 in calm, sunny weather, but he had shot the same number to lead the 2003 U.S. Open only to fade away. A nice blast from the past, but surely a 59-year-old with a balky putter, whose last regular PGA Tour win came in 1998, was not about to win the Open. Then, in significantly more difficult conditions Friday, he put together a solid 70 to share the lead. Things were heating up. When Watson went out Saturday and muddled his way to a 71, at an age when even golfers are generally known to hit honorary tee shots at the Masters, he was, almost inconceivably, in position to win. His lead was one.
And so it was that I found myself in a hotel room in New Orleans one day after moving here, and instead of exploring the city or looking at apartments as I was meant to, I sat on the bed with the TV tuned to the golf and prayed to the gods as hard as I ever have. Hail Hogan, full of grace, Bobby Jones is with thee. Blessed art thou among sportsmen, and blessed is thy one-iron at Merion in 1950. Pray for us duffers and for Tom Watson, now and on the 18th green. Amen. I thought my rosary of Aves worked: Watson, after a glory-be-to-Nicklaus birdie at the 17th, came to the last with a one-shot lead and split the fairway. On the approach he lofted the prettiest little eight-iron you ever saw, a ramrod straight thing that grazed the heavens and came down with the soft trajectory of a parachute, only, inexplicably, to take a big hop over the green onto an awkward slope. An indifferent recovery left him eight feet from hoisting the trophy.
You will understand by now that I am a sentimental person, though perhaps no more so than any other fan. Sports make me pray, cry, groan, laugh, cheer. If you have read this far you are likely the same way. You, like me, believe that Watson cans the putt. You believe that Zola Budd gives Mary Decker enough room to run, or that Gilles Villeneuve wins the Formula 1 World Championship in what will turn out to be his last attempt. You believe, in some deep, dark cranny of your soul, that Buckner fields the grounder, the Bills win the Super Bowl, and Jana Novotná holds serve once — please, just one f---ing time — against Steffi Graf at Wimbledon.
This is insane, but my faith in the gods is not about empirical evidence or always being satisfied with the outcome. It's an ongoing search for moments of real feeling, for some small piece of evidence, in an age of steroids, sexual indiscretions, tomfoolery, and greed, that there is still to be found in sport an element of inspiration or compassion, of resilience or transformation or unalloyed skill. This faith, like any faith, must be disappointed from time to time: The gods test us as Abraham and Noah were tested, to make sure we’re still listening.
Needless to say, Watson missed. I did not see the four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink that followed, which Watson, clearly exhausted, lost by six shots — not because I turned off the television in disgust, though that would have been an acceptable reaction, but because I cried so hard I couldn't see the screen through the blur of tears. It is painful to watch Watson come so close to winning and then fail because you have just witnessed the last, best chance slip past once more. The only reason you keep coming back is for that rare case when the gods will be with you, for the chill that runs down your spine as your belief pays off, and the Giants win the pennant, Bannister breaks four minutes, or Nicklaus raises his putter.
Fallon's character in Fever Pitch, you see, doesn't torture himself re-watching his beloved Red Sox Game 6 train wreck because he needs to remember what happened. He could give you a play-by-play not just of that fateful grounder but of the entire game, the whole season. He's studying it for something he missed, some clue that might have suggested 1986 would be the last, best chance. (Fallon's character, as he rewinds the Buckner tape, cannot predict that this will be the year. The movie was still shooting in Boston as the Sox captured the Series in '04, an occurrence so unexpected as to require the filmmakers to re-write the ending.) This phenomenon is suggestive of how much we shape the narrative, imbuing missed opportunities and last-second collapses with a power far beyond their actual consequence.
Knowing what I know now, it is impossible not to read Woods's five days in June 2008 for signs of a counter-narrative. The tournament, for instance, was staged at Torrey Pines that week, a place Tiger first played at the age of eight, where he had won everything from the Junior Golf World Championships to seven PGA Tour titles. It strikes me now that when the gods decide it's time for one of the great practitioners to take a bow, it usually happens at a venue with personal or historical significance. Palmer and Nicklaus, who practically owned Augusta National through the sixties and seventies, won their last majors at the Masters; Sampras beat Agassi in Flushing, a nostalgic all-American final at the headquarters of the USTA; the 1996 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team had their improbable triumph on home soil in Atlanta.
At the time, though, I was blissfully unaware of this. That Sunday, still a vivid, visceral memory of goosebumps and nail-biting, gathered all the great themes of sport: the plucky underdog and the immortal-in-waiting; the sudden momentum shifts and the last-ditch efforts; the weight of the occasion and the basic simplicity of the task. In the face of the biggest opportunity in his long career, Rocco Mediate, a motor-mouth journeyman who once considered quitting the game because of recurring back pain, had stared down the best golfer on Earth.
Now, standing on the last tee, Woods needed a birdie to force an 18-hole playoff the next morning. What followed took perhaps 20 minutes, but in my mind it feels more like an hour. You had Woods gritting his teeth once more, sending his wayward drive into the fairway bunker. You had the iffy lie in the sand and the requisite lay-up, which Woods guided into intermediate rough about 100 yards from the hole. You had the do-or-die wedge to 15 feet, the massive crowd applauding, Mediate standing by with the on-course talent from NBC. The putt would be speedy, downhill and double breaking, over a green pockmarked by four days of competition. As Woods stood over the ball, 20,000 spectators stood in silence befitting a funeral mass, and then he pulled the putter back.
As it happens, I was misreading the script. We cannot know in advance what knowledge we'll end up using to shape the narrative, that instead of quietly assuming his place in history our hero will embark on a 10-year journey in the wilderness, one from which he continues to try to find his way back. We couldn't have known to ask, What if we are seeing the end of Tiger Woods?
This is not, I see now, the moral of the story, the lesson worth gleaning from it. For one, it remains possible that Woods will rewrite the narrative once more, at Augusta or Shinnecock or Carnoustie or Bellerive, that he will recapture the magic that escaped Watson, that the next chapter of his career will be a late climax, and not the long, agonizing letdown it's been so far. But the fact is, there will be, there must be, a last great victory, and if I'd known 10 years ago that's what I was witnessing, I would have savored it more.
I would have understood the meaning of the ball bumping over those last few feet of ground, the cosmic import of the crowd's delirious roar as it disappeared into the hole, the history present in the eruptive motion of the fist pump. I would have held on longer to that indelible chill down the spine that occurs when the gods deign to answer our letters. In this way, sports are a lot more like life than we usually acknowledge. The final victory is the sweetest one only insofar as, in the moment it's happening, it doesn't seem final at all. Otherwise, once the wins stop piling up and the narrative has run its course, the final victory is the saddest. Because you can never go back.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine, and wishes his short game were more consistent. You can follow him on Twitter at @thefilmgoer.