IT is the eve of the 1996 Masters Tournament at Augusta National. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are playing a practice round alongside a promising 20-year-old amateur by the name of Eldrick “Tiger” Woods. Not surprisingly given their respective ages, Woods is consistently outdriving his companions.
At the par-5 13th, however, Woods “pops up” his tee-shot and is first to hit his second. Up ahead, Palmer and Nicklaus are standing together, the former facing Woods, who is pulling an iron from his bag.
“He’s laying up,” said Palmer.
“Oh Arnie, no he isn’t,” replied the Golden Bear, just before Woods launched a 240-yard 4-iron into the middle of the distant putting surface.
Later, as he walked from the 18th green to the clubhouse, Nicklaus announced to the waiting press corps that the young Tiger would “win more Masters than Arnie and I combined”. In other words, at least 11.
A few years later, Nicklaus sat with five-times Open champion Tom Watson watching Woods win yet another major. Turning to his long-time friend, Watson asked, “Bear, he’s the best isn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Nicklaus, nodding slowly. “He’s the best.”
What goes up, however, must come down. It turns out Nicklaus was half correct. While Woods became the game’s pre-eminent player, winning 14 grand slam titles to date, he owns “only” four green jackets. Impressive of course, but a far cry from Nicklaus’ early call. And, more damningly, more than six years have now passed since Woods won the last of those 14 majors, four short of the mark set by Nicklaus.
For the true golf fan, there is surely no pleasure to be gained from that fact. The seemingly inexorable decline of the man who has played golf better than anyone else ever has – even the great Nicklaus doesn’t have a 15-shot margin of victory in a major on his CV – is sad to see. The Woods we have been watching these past few days at Valhalla in the US PGA Championship is but a shadow of his former self. And, perhaps even more humiliating for a justifiably proud champion, the distinction between Woods and the new No.1, Rory McIlroy, is now so vast as to almost be embarrassing.
It was ever thus in sport, of course. As one star ages and gradually fades to black, another rises over the horizon. Nicklaus knows this better than anyone, which makes his opinion on the state of the game he dominated so relevant. Just the other day on a radio show, in fact, the 74-year-old, pictured below, was further indulging his penchant for predictions.
“I think Rory is an unbelievable talent,” he said. “I love his swing. I love his rhythm. I love his moxie. He’s got a little swagger. It’s a little bit cocky but not offensive. I like that. I like self-confidence in a young man. He’s got an unbelievable amount of speed in his swing and hits the ball a long way. It depends on what his priorities are, but I think Rory has the opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors.”
In other words, it is Rory’s ball now Tiger, you might as well hang it up. Whether he will or not remains to be seen – with Woods it has always been difficult to believe many of his public utterances – so what follows must come under the heading of what former US Open champion Tom Kite always calls “pure speculation”.
Bear with me, though. Almost throughout his 18-year professional career, Woods claimed that the Nicklaus record of 18 major championship victories was of no concern. He also said, more than once, that he would be done with golf long before most people expected. Now, all of a sudden, he is talking about that magic number of 18 and playing until he is 50 years old. Yet, at the same time, he isn’t practising. This is odd.
Logically then, we are forced to assume that what Tiger says in public is very different from his private thoughts. Away from the gaze of the media it is not much of a stretch to imagine Tiger has come to a realisation that he no longer has what it takes to compete with the very best players. Which would make sense.
To many educated observers it does seem as if Tiger has contracted a particularly virulent strain of the driver yips. Some of his tee shots over the last couple of years have been a danger to the public, passing cars and wildlife everywhere. Where McIlroy – a magnificent driver of a golf ball – is long and straight, Tiger is now short and crooked.
With no end in sight to his problems with the longest club in his bag, it will therefore come as no surprise to this long-time observer if Woods is already searching for an escape route. It won’t be straightforward though. Pride means he can’t easily admit to an inability to play any more. So an alternative is required.
Here’s one option, a final chapter that reads as follows: “Tiger won an incredible percentage of his tournaments. He won 14 majors. And his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record was cut short by injury.” That is his tunnel to freedom, his way out and a tale that would be easy for at least the compliant members of the press pack to write. Still, it is not without some lingering drawbacks. Such a storyline would inevitably lead to speculation as to exactly why Tiger’s body broke down. Whatever, the bottom line would be the same: the end of Tiger Woods’ career as a top-level professional golfer.
Within that doomsday scenario, there is also potential for a crack of daylight. I could see Tiger re-appearing after a year or so, just to see if he could play on tour. If that proved even mildly successful, he would continue in the role of “elder statesman”. Or, more likely, he could just say: “You know what, I’m just going to play exhibition matches from now on. I can make big money in places like Turkey and Dubai. But real competitive golf is out. My back just can’t take playing or practising more than two days in a row.”
All of the above is surely preferable to what the late Seve Ballesteros endured towards the close of his storied career. Beset by back problems and an inability to hit even the widest fairway (sound familiar?) the great Spaniard struggled away on the European Tour barely able to make a cut. Gone was the dashing Seve who dazzled us with a unique artistry, creativeness and touch, replaced by a guy with a bad back and an even worse swing. It was an undignified end for such a magnificent champion.
It has ever been thus in golf, though. Time waits for no golfer, not even a Tiger. And so the game has moved on. Last week at Firestone, Bubba Watson was outdriving Woods by as much as 90 yards. It’s time for this father-of-two to find something else to do with the rest of his life. It’s Rory’s game now.