During the last round of the 2008 U.S. Open, my father and I watched Tiger Woods limp his way to his 14th (and last) major championship on an injured left ACL. That Monday, as Tiger accepted his trophy after beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff, Pops and I had a dead-serious conversation about whether Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali would have company in the “greatest athlete ever” conversation by the time Tiger finished his career. Again, we were dead serious. Who could have ever predicted these last five years?
I went back and watched highlights of the two final rounds of that 2008 U.S. Open. It gave me goose bumps to see a man perform on that level under those circumstances. There was also a level of nostalgia involved watching Tiger back when he was, well, Tiger. He chased down Lee Westwood that Saturday thanks to a serendipitous birdie on the 17th hole that hit the flag pole instead of flying five or six yards past the cup. Then there was that insane eagle on the 18th, played just right. OnlyTiger. It was his second eagle on the back nine. The next day, in his Sunday red, he dropped in a long birdie on the final hole to force the sudden death playoff.
Before that ACL recovery, before his wife Elin Nordegren took a golf club to his crashed Escalade, before the scandals and layoffs, we expected Tiger to hit those shots. He had transcended transcendence. He was an icon in 2008, the most popular and recognizable athlete in the world — Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and Tom Brady would’ve told you so. Even the folks that scoff at the very notion of golfers merely being considered athletes had to acknowledge the immortal march Tiger was on. And, although pro athletes often have great admiration for the way pro golfers have been able to master a game that gives everyone else fits, I’m betting Kevin Durant holds no awe for Phil Mickelson nor Andrew Luck for Rory McIlroy. But. at Tiger’s peak, he was The Man among men. Retired legends from Charles Barkley to Michael Jordan hung with him to soak up lost virtuosity the way Dr. Dre attached himself to Kendrick Lamar’s debut album and Jay-Z hopped on the “BDKMV” remix. In many ways, these were two-way co-signs.
But here we are, five years later and Tiger’s back, but the dude ain’t back. He’s No. 1 in the PGA rankings, he won five tournaments in 2013 (more than any other golfer) and was the top earner at about $8 million…but he ain’t back. He ain’t back until he wins a major, when the courses’ treachery increases and the fields get more competitive and keyed-in.
The weekend before last,Tiger molly-whopped the field at the Bridgestone Invitational as the tune-up for the PGA. With two holes left in the second round, he was gunning for a 59 for the day, ultimately settling on a still blistering 61. The next day, though, he shot 3-over and then went even on his final 16 holes. He ended up winning comfortably, but his uneven weekend play was all too familiar. I was in Orlando for a conference during the tournament and watched Saturday’s round at a sports bar with a mentor/Tiger fan. As Tiger struggled I mentioned that this was the kind of play that’s been plaguing him on Saturdays and Sundays at majors. He laughed, said something like, “He doesn’t have to play well Saturday and Sunday when he shoots a 61 Friday.” But, it goes without saying, Tiger doesn’t shoot a lot of 61s on Fridays. So his mortal weekend play — sometimes manifesting what looks like (gasp!) nerves — is an ongoing issue that is five years unsolved.
So, what now? Forget MJ and Ali company — now we have to think about Jack Nicklaus company. The recalibration of Tiger’s legacy these past few years hasn’t just been unexpected, it’s been a little sad. Imagine if Jordan came back in 1996 and, instead of playing like Jordan, played merely like Reggie Miller. Feel me?
“I just didn’t hit it good enough,” Tiger said after his final round at Oak Hill, Sunday. “Just the way it goes.”
Word, fam? That’s not the way it used to go, that’s for sure. It’s downright uncomfortable to hear a once teflon athlete resigned to such helplessness. He could’ve been the greatest ever. Stripped too early of immortality, it’d be nice if he could be just great again.