Last Thursday morning, after two hours of hitting sloppy shots, Tiger Woods approached his playing partners on the 9th green at TPC Sawgrass and bid them adieu. After a front-nine 42 he was withdrawing from the Players for the second straight year (in 2010 he quit in the fourth round with a bulging disk in his neck), citing a chain reaction of pain in his left leg that started in his knee, migrated to his Achilles and ended with tightness in his calf.
For the golfer who defined athletic grit and greatness for more than a decade, it was another calamitous turn in what has been the steady decline of a legend. After dominating the game from 1997 to 2008 with 14 major championships and a level of golf the sport has never seen, the 35-year-old Woods has not won a major in three years or any PGA Tour event in nearly two. His availability for the year's remaining three majors (the U.S. and British Opens, and the PGA Championship) is in doubt, as is his ability to stay healthy for the long term.
"[For] anybody who has had four operations on their knee by age 35 and is still having significant problems, the outlook is not good," says Dr. Ronald Grelsamer, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "In the worst-case scenario, if he needed a knee replacement, he could still play golf and probably still play well. But whatever he has, the operations have not worked as well as desired. Maybe his knee is his Kryptonite."
It is impossible to know the endgame for Woods, whose desire to conceal and control the world around him has accompanied every step of his quest to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. Yet again, he is learning a new golf swing, this one under the tutelage of Sean Foley, all while trying to fend off injuries and the heavy hands of Father Time.
"This has been the most challenging time of his personal life, the most challenging time for him physically, and now he's going through another swing change," says former Tour player Bobby Clampett. "As we get older, we simply can't do the same things that we could when we were younger. I think when he's 40, he's going to look back and say, 'I don't know why I made all these swing changes. I was looking in the wrong place.' "
The passage of time has robbed sports legends of their gifts at too early an age - Sandy Koufax diagnosed with traumatic arthritis, Bobby Orr skating on a ravaged left knee. Woods's fall has the dual threads of personal scandal and physical decay.
"Sometimes it's very difficult to read him, and I think I know him fairly well," Mark O'Meara, one of his best friends in golf, said last week. "I asked him the other day, 'How's the leg?' and he says, 'It's fine.' I don't know if it's fine or if he's just telling me it's fine and it's really not that fine."
Woods need not say anything now. His answers will be revealed in the tournaments he plays in, those he misses and in every swing he makes.