It's an age-old philosopical question: If you could know the date you were going to die and how it was going to happen, would you want to?
As the Masters approaches, it seems that golf fans are wrestling with a variation of that conundrum: If you could know beyond a doubt that Tiger Woods will never claim another major -- that history will show him winning his last in what we all assumed had been the middle of his prime, at age 32, at the 2008 U.S. Open --would you want to know that?
People have predicted as much -- people like Greg Norman, who Golf Magazine interviewed in 2011. Q: Do you believe Tiger will win another major, given the state of his body, his mind and his game? A: No.
No? It seemed like a brave answer then but less so today. It's almost trendy to say Woods won't reach 19.
Tiger is stuck at 14 major wins. He'll need four more to equal Jack Nicklaus's mythic total, and five more -- keep in mind, five majors is Phil Mickelson's current career total -- to set the game's new gold standard. Impossible? You don't want to know if it's impossible, just like you don't want to know if he's incapable of winning even one more -- or when and how you'll shuffle off this mortal coil. Where's the fun in that?
Arnold Palmer, 50 years ago this month, won what turned out to be his last Masters and his last major, despite the fact that he was only 34. Endings don't always have the grace to announce themselves, to give "closure." Sure, some of them do. Jack winning the 1986 Masters at 46? That was closure with a bow on top, like the finale of "Breaking Bad." But maybe the end of the reign for Woods, as with Palmer before him, will be more like the last episode of "The Sopranos": We'll just sit there staring at nothing, wondering, "Wait -- so that's it?" Kind of like we are now.
For Woods to win the 2014 Masters he will need to hit greens -- in three of his four victories at Augusta, he's been either first or tied for first in greens in regulation. In his fourth win, in 2005, he was second. Putting? Yeah, he has to worry about that, too, because the one other time Woods led the field in greens hit, in 1999, he took 126 putts (his highest four-round total at Augusta by three) and finished T18. He has averaged 30 putts per round on the weekend the last three years.
The problem is his body. Most of the blame here goes to his left knee, which he first had surgery on as a Stanford freshman in 1994, to remove two benign tumors. Three more operations on that knee, plus pain in or injuries to his ankle and neck (2010 Players), right and left Achilles' tendons (2008, 2011), elbow and back (last year), have us wondering if Woods isn't really made out of glass.
The problem is also his mind. Tiger shot in the 60s just once in the 2013 majors, compared with 23 times in non-majors (en route to five wins). What's more, he hasn't broken 70 in 16 straight weekend rounds in those freighted events. And of the 18 majors that make up Woods's ongoing winless streak, he'd won his previous start nine times -- only to fizzle out when it mattered most.
Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Sam Snead and even Lee Trevino won at least one major when they were as old or older than Woods is today (38). Hogan won five of them after his 38th birthday, and Nicklaus was 46 when he won the 1986 Masters. Player slipped the green jacket on in 1978 at the age of 42. And it's not like Woods hasn't come close at Augusta. He always comes close: T4s in three of the last four years.
But then there's Palmer. Fifty years ago he won the Masters for a record fourth time, by six shots. At 34, he was seemingly in the prime of his career. He hit the ball a mile. He played and lived under a microscope. According to the Sports Illustrated account of the tournament, his fellow competitors "hesitated to think" what the future might hold for the dominant Palmer.