Next week, the 122nd US Open golf championship takes place at Brookline Country Club in Massachusetts, and while Tiger Woods is listed to play, it’s still unclear if the three-time winner will actually turn up, especially after his leg injuries forced a premature ending to his previous outing at the PGA Championship in May.
But the question shouldn’t be whether Woods should risk playing the US Open – it’s whether he should ever play again.
It’s now nearly 16 months since Woods was involved in a single-car accident in Rancho Palos, Calif., a crash that resulted in injuries so serious surgeons reportedly considered amputating his right leg.
Remarkably, though, Woods returned to action at the Masters in April, and while he made the halfway cut, his weekend rounds of two 78s were his worst in over 25 years of playing a tournament he’s won five times.
Then, at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., Woods limped and labored to a career-worst score at the event, forcing his withdrawal, the only time he’s done that in a major since he was a 19-year-old amateur playing in the 1995 US Open, when he pulled out with a wrist injury.
But that look of discomfort, and even a hint of embarrassment, as he tried to complete that third round at Southern Hills was as obvious as it was upsetting. Gone was the trademark power that saw him win 15 majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus. His usually exquisite touch on the greens had deserted him and even bending down to pick the ball out of the hole seemed to be agony.
It’s just not the Tiger Woods anyone wants to see.
While many viewed his struggle to return to playing as heroic, there was nothing noble or courageous about it.
If anything, it brought to mind those last few years of the late Seve Ballesteros’ career when the Spanish golfing legend and five-time major winner didn’t seem to know where the ball was going to go or even Muhammad Ali in those agonizing final fights against Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981; nobody enjoys it, not Seve, not Ali and certainly not Woods.
This, after all, is a golfer for whom winning is everything.
Even ahead of the Masters and the PGA, where he’s a four-time winner, Woods was still saying publicly there was no point in competing unless he thought he could win. While you might expect him to say that – he’s won 110 times in his pro career – his injury-affected performances suggested he was a shadow of the player he once was.
The former European Ryder Cup captain and TV analyst Paul McGinley watched Tiger toil at Southern Hills and remarked that Woods’s pride was such “that he doesn’t want to come back and just be a ceremonial golfer” that turns up and never challenges the leaders.
And that’s a very real danger.
Yes, talking the talk is one thing but walking the walk – literally – is another matter entirely for Woods.
Will it get any better? Sure, he will get stronger over time but there were already a lot of miles on the clock. Now 46, his body had already endured so much before the crash, including five back operations dating back a decade and as many surgeries on his knees, the first of which was in 1994. Time was always going to catch up with him.
So he should take next week off. Or take a month off?
Maybe the tournament won’t be the same without Woods and TV ratings will tumble but nobody will blame him, not with everything he’s done in the game and for the game.
And if he does call time on his career he won’t want for things to do – or money. Look at Tom Brady. He’s just reportedly signed a 10-year deal worth $375 million to be Fox Sports’ lead NFL analyst. Imagine the insight the greatest golfer of the century could bring to the PGA Tour action – especially when Nick Faldo’s your nearest competition.
Besides, there’s a perfect ending just waiting to be had.
In July, the final major championship of the year, the British Open, will take place at the spiritual home of golf, St. Andrews. It is, by Woods’s own admission, his favorite golf course in the world and a place where he’s won twice before, in 2000 and 2005.
A summer Sunday in Scotland, galleries in their thousands lining the Old Course’s 18th fairway and Woods pausing for one final photograph on top of the fabled Swilken Bridge, just as Jack Nicklaus, his only rival for the title of golf’s GOAT, did in 2005.
As endings go, it would be the most fitting of tributes.