Everyone hopes Tiger Woods will be able to play in the Masters. Some have hope that he will somehow be truly ready physically and mentally and play well. And there are diehards who hope against hope that he will win.
But a growing number doubt that Woods will be able to start at Augusta, especially after his friend Steve Stricker discouragingly said on Tuesday, “I don’t think he’s doing that well right now physically.” Woods confirmed as much when he announced Thursday evening he would not be playing next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational. It’s no longer unreasonable to wonder whether 2017—which began with high hopes for a Woods comeback—will be the year the 14-time major champion announces his retirement.
That would be a sad day. But the possibility also raises this intriguing question: If Tiger Woods had to give up competitive golf, what would he do?
Certainly Woods has several current involvements into which he could channel more time and energy. The most obvious would be leading his new umbrella brand, TGR, which includes his foundation and learning centers (which recently celebrated their 20th anniversary), his golf-course design company and his restaurant near his home in Jupiter, Fla. He is also a devoted father who has made his children a priority, last year telling Lorne Rubenstein for a Time magazine interview, “The most important thing … is that I get to have a life with my kids. That’s more important than golf. I’ve come to realize that now.”
But other than appearing on the sidelines of their soccer games, as he has tried to recover from back problems, Woods has been an irregular presence in public over the last year. He is more often described as reclusive, leaving the impression of a complicated 41-year-old man still finding his way through the travails of fame and professional crisis. At a time when he is still struggling to solve the puzzle of his golf, Woods has given no indication that he is settled on what will be his second act.
Stepping away is never easy for iconic athletes. As a general rule, the greater the player in any sport, the more difficult the transition to civilian life. The probability that nothing will ever be quite as exciting or fulfilling than being a dominant figure in the athletic arena can have a paralyzing effect on starting over. It’s why Tom Brady’s humorous principle battle cry of “when I suck, I’ll retire” carries a rueful wisdom.
For golfers, the decision can be harder because a career can linger, especially with the advent in 1980 of senior professional golf. Some of the game’s icons have met the challenge smoothly. Bobby Jones and Byron Nelson, for whom competition could be agonizing, seemed relieved and satisfied in retirement. Sam Snead never really retired, playing every day well into his 80s. As different as they were in personality, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer each raged against the dying of their competitive light, both palpably wistful for their primes. Greg Norman, perhaps in part because he suffered a disproportionate amount of disappointments in his playing career, attacked his post competitive career with a zest that has made him one of the most successful athletes-turned-entrepreneurs in history.
Using the greatness-to-difficulty ratio, perhaps Jack Nicklaus has handled retirement from tour life the best. Saying that he loved professional golf because it was his vehicle to competition, he professed not missing the game once he was no longer good enough to win. Nicklaus channeled his need for competition into other areas, chiefly his course design and other businesses, but also his tennis. As Lee Trevino said of Nicklaus, “Jack figured out the whole deal, even the part at the end. He’s been so good at all of it.”
Few players ever burned with as much intensity as Nick Faldo while he was winning six major championships. Though the fire went out not long after his last one at the 1996 Masters, he admits that it isn’t easy getting the same satisfaction in his post playing career.
“The most difficult thing is, in golf, every single shot, in practice or in a tournament round, gives you a measurable goal,” Faldo said in a phone conversation. “In a day at a tournament, I might have 1,000 little goals. So I knew what defined a really good day. In the things you do after being a player, someone might say, Have a nice day, and I’d wonder, Well, what is that? Even in television, it’s not nearly as measurable. So I miss that.”
Knowing the accomplishments that he achieved on the course, there is a real psychological void to fill says Faldo, when you can no long perform to that level.
“I wish I could be a golfer again,” Faldo said. “That’s the hardest thing – the way I used to play. I’ve had to accept that the feeling of being a dominant golfer, which I was from 1987 to 1992, you can never replace that. When I started doing television, I gave myself one simple goal: I am not going to wish I was out there. It took about 10 years, but I’ve gotten good at that.
“Now, as an analyst, I notice all the little things that have to happen for someone to win, not just what that player does, but what other players do. I thought back to the Sundays when I won, how fortunate I was, and it made me understand that the key to the whole thing is gratitude. To just be thankful for what I was able to do. And I am, and it’s helped. Although when I watch the Rolling Stones or Sting still able to do what they love into their 70s, I think, ‘You lucky buggers.’ ”
Where will Woods fit in the spectrum?
Given the palpable hunger for nothing less than victory with which Woods played, the first assumption that he will miss the game terribly, in Hogan/Palmer territory. After all, his whole being since he was a child has been centered on competitive golf.
On the other hand, it’s that very fact that might be why Woods might welcome retirement. That while he has always loved playing the game, all that went with his greatness wasn’t of his choosing and has been exhausting. It’s plausible to posit that for a long time, Tiger Woods has felt trapped.
Over the years, he has often related the pleasure he gets from situations where he can blend in to the point of anonymity. While a student at Stanford, he would relate how much he enjoyed not being considered exceptional or a star in gatherings of “all the brainiacs” in the dorm, a memory which took on extra resonance when Woods told Charlie Rose last year that his biggest regret in life is not having stayed at Stanford another year. Woods said he liked scuba diving because “the fish don’t know who I am,” and named his yacht “Privacy.” His attraction to being in military environments was in part the chance to be just another cog in a big machine, doing his job without fanfare. Last year in his interview with Time magazine, when asked what he’d like his legacy to be, Woods said, “the best thing would be to not be remembered.”
Although his personality is one that keeps much inside, Woods has occasionally betrayed resentment at being thrust into the spotlight. As a rookie in the midst of Tigermania at the 1996 La Cantera Texas Open, his late father, Earl tried to unburden his son by saying, “Hey, I know how you feel.” According to Earl, Tiger, “jumped up and yelled, ‘No, you don’t know how I feel!’ It was the first time in his entire life he had ever raised his voice to me.” According to Hank Haney, Woods in down periods would react to the crushing weight of expectation by saying, “Nothing is ever good enough.”
“I think he’s tired,” Michael Jordan told Wright Thompson of ESPN The Magazine last year. “I think he really wishes he could retire, but he doesn’t know how to do it yet, and I don’t think he wants to leave it where it is right now.”
Or perhaps, Woods is indeed “reconciled.” Or to take it a step further, if Jones and Nelson looked forward to a way out, is it so farfetched to wonder if Woods has hastened his own exit? Consider his immersion in physically extreme Navy Seal training, which his trainers always vehemently discouraged, that caused injuries. Or his insistence on playing with a leg fracture in his epic victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, whose aftermath included immediate surgery in the short term and no more major victories since in the long term. Or the reckless behavior that led to his scandal in 2009, perhaps the biggest factor in Woods’ decline.
It may be that Woods could see the end before anyone else. It was in 2007, when he was seriously contemplating joining the Navy Seals, that his answer to Haney when the instructor challenged Woods on why he was jeopardizing his chances of breaking Nicklaus’ major record was “I’m satisfied with what I’ve done in my career.” And when asked by Time about how he would feel if injuries brought about his retirement, Woods calm response was “I’m reconciled to it.”
If it happens, what he would do could depend on how he goes out. If it’s as the noble and decorated warrior felled by incapacitating injury—the narrative Woods has consistently fed the last few years—it won’t diminish his legacy. Such an end would make a public life easier, whether actively heading his foundation, building golf courses or easing into elder statesmanship like Nicklaus. Perhaps, golf fans can hope, even doing some television.
But if Woods’ exit is inexorably linked to the psychic scars from his public shame, his retirement will be more complicated and difficult. It would take a more profound inner peace than he has conveyed to become a dynamic public figure. The easier path would be to continue to be reclusive.
Either way would not preclude Woods’ focus on fatherhood. Like Earl, who as a retired military man in his 40s poured his energy into young Tiger, Woods appears eager to do the same with Sam, 9, and Charlie, 8.
Outside of family, I believe Woods’ ideal post-competitive calling would be as a golf teacher, potentially the game’s ultimate Yoda. He has long had a passion and aptitude for conveying the game’s techniques and secrets, and who but a handful could ever say they have his first-hand knowledge.
I witnessed his curiosity for instruction at the 1994 World Amateur Team Championship near Paris. On a team comprised of Allen Doyle, John Harris and Todd Demsey, the then 18-year-old Woods loved talking technique with his teammates. He particular enjoyed deconstructing the Rube Goldberg action of the gritty Doyle, while offering suggestions within the context of such a highly personal swing.
Said the team captain, the perceptive former USGA president Grant Spaeth at the time, “Tiger is the natural teacher among us.” My guess is that Woods’ surprising-to-some zeal for serving as an assistant captain on Ryder and Presidents Cup teams comes from the same place.
I’m not suggesting Woods would want to put out a shingle and open up a school. Rather, I could see him, much like Lee Trevino does, very quietly helping select players and students, getting satisfaction from sharing from the immense well of what he knows best, the game of golf.
For now, let’s hope that Woods is able to add to that well with a memorable performance at the Masters.