Tiger has had enough.
That doesn’t mean he’s done playing tournament golf again. No matter what may or may not happen next week at Augusta, Tiger Woods is not walking away from the game’s great championships before he turns 40. Ben Hogan was 65 when he finally decided he was through playing tournament golf. (“I am the sole judge of my own standards,” he once said.) Tiger is not even close to making a clean break. We will see him again on a course, playing for keeps. He’s too good at golf not to win again. And when he does, it will be half a lark, like when Big Jack used guile and memory to win at Augusta at 46.
We’ll see a different Tiger Woods from here on out. Over time he’ll figure out a way to lower expectations. As he does, he will finally lay down the heavy load he’s been carrying since he was a toddler.
He’ll continue to play here and there because he still enjoys competition, because he likes being around the guys and because golf is in his blood. He’ll be an excellent Ryder Cup captain someday. At some point he will convey to us that he has accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish, and that preparing for tournaments and showing up at pretournament press conferences don’t rank in his top 10 things-I-want-to-do. The subtext will be painfully clear: I’ve had enough.
Can you blame him? His career was launched with cameras in his face on The Mike Douglas Show, at age two. Many more cameras, capturing his winning smile, uncommon heritage and unique skill, made him a millionaire 50 times over by the time he was 25. Other cameras—one pointed at a secret girlfriend as she left her New York brownstone, another one catching him at a Mississippi rehab center—turned his private life into a public joke. Still other cameras caught a bizarre string of rules infractions—four in all—in a nine-month period in 2013. Later, at the end of a woeful 2014 and in two tournaments in the early part of this year, cameras recorded in gruesome detail a series of humiliating flubbed chips and pitch shots. The camera, once his best friend, had become his worst enemy.
Yes, he’s 39, and his body is falling apart. It’s easy to say he swung too hard, lifted too much, slept too little. He knew what he was doing. You and I and Brandel Chamblee and every blogger from here to Siberia can second-guess every swing change, every equipment change and every coaching change Woods has ever made, but in actual fact he made nothing but brilliant decisions. Here’s the proof: He played better golf, and more dominating golf, than anybody ever has. Greatness is expensive. His bill has come due.
You may despise this next sentence, but I believe it to my core: Woods died a little death on a September day in 2013, when a camera zoomed in on his Nike ball in a suburban Chicago thicket in the second round of a tournament named for a car manufacturer. He went to lift a twig and his ball moved, but Woods, blinded by his own ambition, couldn’t see it, and that’s being generous. If he didn’t believe his ball moved, as he said, he should have stood up for himself and his integrity and not signed his scorecard that day. Ever since, the Tiger Woods we knew from years of watching him on TV—the Tiger Woods who left us in awe—has been in hiding.
The problem is not his changing swing patterns, and it is not his deactivated glutes. Those are symptoms. The problem is not that he’s dating an elite, high-profile athlete or that he is a single father with two young children. If you listen to Tiger closely, it’s obvious that Lindsey Vonn and his kids are the most positive influences in his life right now. The problem is not that he’s too rich.
The problem is that Tiger Woods has had enough, and he doesn’t know how to break the news to us, or to himself. He doesn’t know how to break up with our expectations of who and what he should be. He doesn’t know how to part ways with his spectacular past.
The man’s in a tough spot, his toughest yet. He doesn’t have to find his swing. He has to find himself.