Is this the end?
It's impossible not to wonder. Tiger Woods's stunning withdrawal from this week's Safeway Open has done more than just render the 2016-17 season-opener mostly irrelevant. It has cast doubt as to whether we will ever again see Woods play meaningful tournament golf. In pulling the plug at the last minute, Woods said in a statement on his website that his game was too "vulnerable" for public consumption. For a man who has spent a career obfuscating, it was a candid and powerful choice of words.
Woods is now targeting a return at his World Challenge, in December. It is a small, unofficial event and Woods runs every aspect of that tournament, thus creating a more controlled environment, including the pairings. Woods's unease with turning up at the Safeway was surely compounded by Phil Mickelson's very public eagerness to play alongside Woods. The PGA Tour had yet to release the pairings at the time of Woods's withdrawal but various media reports had it on good authority that Woods was indeed going to have to play alongside his career-long antagonist and foil. Tiger's worst nightmare would be skulling chip shots while Phil the Thrill dazzled the gallery with his wedge play.
Whether Woods can pull himself together for the World Challenge is an open question. The tournament will mark a grim anniversary, as one year ago there he opened a vein in a press conference, offering his most downbeat comments ever about his future. Taking stock of his 14 major championships and 79 Tour wins, Woods said, "I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy."
The tone of resignation sent a shudder through the golf world. "Yeah, I worry about him," said Steve Stricker, one of the few players on Tour with whom Woods has been close. "I never thought those words would come out of his mouth. He almost seemed content that he wasn't going to play again."
At this point, it is the accumulated mental scar tissue that is holding back Woods, not the lingering effects of three back surgeries. He said as much in announcing his withdrawal from the Safeway: "My health is good, and I feel strong." But his metaphysical crisis has been brewing for years: the chip-yips last year in San Diego and Phoenix, the 80 at the U.S. Open, the 85 at Memorial. It became clear that Woods was suffering from a kind of stage fright; he would stripe the ball on the range but then fall apart upon reaching the first tee.
The most dispiriting example came at the 2015 British Open. On his first swing he hit inches behind his ball and duffed an iron shot down the widest fairway in golf, leaving an unsightly scar on the 1st tee of the Old Course. On his next swing Woods chunked his shot into the Swilken Burn and just like that his tournament was over. When his former caddie Steve Williams later arrived on the tee he spied the massive divot and observed grimly that there was only one person in the field who could be responsible for such a gouge. Woods's season ended a month later, in Greensboro, when he somehow fought his way into contention only to falter on Sunday with a wince-inducing triple bogey that included a bladed chip followed by a duff.
He has been in exile ever since, though in May he turned up for a promotional event at Congressional Country Club and was put on the spot, asked to hit a 102 yard wedge shot over water, in front of a big crowd, to say nothing of a host of TV cameras. The 10-year-old Tiger Woods would have enjoyed showing off in a moment like this and had zero trouble hitting the green, but in his diminished state the 40-year-old Woods plunked two straight shots in the water. Standing over a third attempt, the microphones picked up an inner monologue of sheer desperation: "C'mon, Tiger," he said poignantly to himself. This shot expired in the hazard, too. It was a brutal humiliation.
In recent months word had been leaking out of South Florida that Woods was healthy enough to be playing a lot of recreational golf. Jesper Parnevik may have unwittingly ratcheted up the pressure on Woods when he was recently quoted as saying, "On the range, at least, his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago. Comebacks are never a sure thing, but something tells me his might be spectacular."
Instead of the majesty of the turn-of-the-century Woods we are left with other, sadder comparisons. There is Daniel Day-Lewis, who in 1989 walked off the stage in the middle of a performance of Hamlet and has refused to do live theater ever since. (Movies offer the chance to wipe away your mistakes with yet another take; golfers aren't afforded that privilege.) There is Pablo Casals, who was considered by many to be the world's greatest cellist, even though he suffered from vicious stage fright. On a hike, in 1901, a large rock crushed several fingers on his bowing hand and Casals's first thought was, "Thank God! I'll never have to play the cello again!" And, of course, there is the great Bobby Jones, who was chased from competition at 28 by the grinding pressure to perform. Jones still loved to play the game, just not when the world was watching. "I have never felt so lonely as on a golf course in the midst of a championship with thousands of people around, especially when things began to go wrong and the crowds started wandering away," Jones once said. On another occasion he observed, "Some emotions cannot be endured with a golf club in your hands."
But it is yet another thought from Jones that might explain Woods's most recent vanishing act: "You can take it from me there are two kinds of golf; there is golf and tournament golf. And they are not at all the same."