Tiger Woods reaches his 40th birthday on Wednesday, still recovering from a third back operation with no timetable for another golf comeback and reflective comments about ending his epic career.
Former world number one Woods has 14 major titles, four shy of the all-time record set by Jack Nicklaus, and 79 PGA victories, three off the career best held by Sam Snead.
But to become lost in the numbers is to miss the point of what Woods has meant to golf, a unique talent who in his moment might just have been the world’s greatest sport star, the first black man to win a major golf crown sparking “Tiger-mania” and generating a curiosity from fans beyond golf long after his greatest days were behind him.
There’s an old saying that life begins at 40. Time to set aside childish dreams, like matching a boyhood idol, and lift up your children as you revel in what you have achieved.
But Woods said last week he feels at times like a teen and at others far beyond his years due to injuries.
“Mentally, people who know me know I’m like a five-year-old. Physically, sometimes I feel old and sometimes I feel like a teenager,” Woods said.
“I don’t like the polar opposites of the two. I’d like to be somewhere in the middle where I feel 40.”
Woods has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open, in which he limped through a playoff on a broken leg to beat Rocco Mediate.
– No light at tunnel’s end? –
He has been through four knee surgeries, three back operations and a messy sex scandal. Once-mighty shots might only be memories. Forget record runs. Just playing, let alone winning any event, seems a distant goal now.
“There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards,” Woods said at his foundation’s Hero World Challenge event earlier this month. “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t know.
“Pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy. If that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run.”
Woods will serve as an assistant captain of the US 2016 Ryder Cup team guided by Davis Love. But he has come to grips with the idea he might never play again.
“It’s not what I want to have happen and it’s not what I’m planning on having happen, but if it does, it does. I’ve reconciled myself to it,” Woods told Time magazine.
“Even if I don’t come back and I don’t play again, I still want to have a quality of life with my kids. I started to lose that with the other surgeries.”
He told Time that chasing Nicklaus, now 75, was about doing things at a younger age than when Nicklaus had achieved it.
“It was all age-related,” Woods said. “To me, that was important. This guy is the best out there and the best of all time. If I can beat each age that he did it, then I have a chance at being the best.”
Nicklaus has one record, Snead another, and Arnold Palmer brought television to the sport.
But Woods rewrote the game, helping force longer courses, boosting the price TV would pay to show golf and the fitness golfers would need to win, becoming the all-time top sports marketing pitchman before his sex scandal shattered his sponsorship supremacy.
– Majors in future plans –
Nicklaus, for one, refuses to write off an 18th Woods major win, saying, “He has always been a very focused young man with a great work ethic and is tremendously talented. To count him out of that would be foolish. He certainly has a very good chance of doing that.”
While the British Open has offered up some over-40 winners in recent years, the only over-40 winner of a US major since 1999 was Vijay Singh at 41 at the 2004 PGA Championship.
And beyond age 40, only Old Tom Morris won four majors — the British Opens in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867, the last of them at age 46, the same as Nicklaus when he won his last at the 1986 Masters.
Think Woods might have one more still in him at age 46 at the 2022 Masters? If that sort of thing matters to him by then, well, as Nicklaus said, “to count him out of that would be foolish.”
“Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years?” Woods said. “I’m still playing golf at the highest level and winning tournaments and major championships.”
Factfile on Tiger Woods, the 14-time major golf winner who turns 40 on December 30:
TIGER WOODS (USA)
Born – December 30, 1975
Birthplace – Cypress, California, USA
Height – 6-feet-1 (1.85m)
Turned Professional – 1996
Career US PGA Tour wins – 79
Major titles – 14 (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005 Masters; 2000, 2002, 2008 US Open; 2000, 2005, 2006 British Open; 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007 PGA Championship)
PGA Tour Player of the Year – 11 (1997, 1999-2003, 2005-2007, 2009, 2013
PGA Tour Money Leader – 10 (1997, 1999-2002, 2005-2007, 2009, 2013)
Highest World Ranking – 1 (record 683 weeks)
– Agence France-Presse