Masters 2023: Tiger Woods doesn't have much left
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods ambled down the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club in a war against gravity, the hole’s massive slope far from conducive to a gait that has been hobbled by injuries and time, but one that remains functional through stubborn will. His guarded walk went mostly unnoticed Monday morning by the patrons who surrounded the hole, who surround him wherever he goes, for their focus is not on his hobbled walk, but of the simple delight of being close enough to see the march for themselves. But once you notice the hitch it’s hard not to unsee it, for it underlines that the expanse between now and the end is closing by the step. Any doubt to that was erased this week, following Woods' WD from the tournament Sunday morning.
The question is, how long will the sport be able to ignore the obvious, that his gait is no longer of a gladiator ready for combat but of a man weighed down by the scars both suffered and inflicted from battles before? Or will the game continue to expect the same warrior until he puts down his shield for good?
When, if ever, will golf be able to let Tiger Woods go?
The reckoning should have come by now. The popularity should have waned as his performance has, the crowds shrinking to those who have come to pay their respects rather than viewing him as the main—and to some, the only—attraction. There is no parallel in sports to a once-great athlete whose performance no longer lives up to its past still drawing as much attention. For a player who has spent more than a decade teetering on the precipice of no return, golf remains woefully unwilling to acknowledge a day will come when Tiger will no longer be capable of Tiger things.
He has tried to prepare us, to let us know there’s not much gas in the tank. He’s talked about getting “that last major” at the 2019 Masters, and earlier this week he spoke of the idea that each round he plays here could be his last.
“Yes,” Woods said on Tuesday of the finality. “Last year was kind of ... I didn't know if I was going to play again at that time. For some reason everything kind of came together and I pushed it a little bit and I was able to make the cut, which was nice.
“Yeah, I don't know how many more I have in me. So just to be able to appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories.”
Those words were punctuated by the indelible sight of Woods hobbling to his bag in a downpour Saturday afternoon, his mind refusing to yield but the message not making its way to his legs and feet. He was at the bottom of the board and six over in his last seven holes.
Woods is 47. He made his 25th career start at this tournament. Astonishingly, it’s already been four years since he won at Augusta in 2019, something that was both remarkable yet familiar. He’s made the cut in three appearances since that fifth Masters victory, highlighted by last year. Even for a guy whose career has been synonymous with shocking the world, his return from a 17-month sabbatical due to injuries from his involvement in a car accident so severe he nearly lost his leg was one of the more indelible moments of the season. That he rallied to make the weekend a month later at the PGA Championship, where he had to limp and claw and scrape just to make it around Southern Hills before withdrawing before the final round, fanned the idea that if Woods could get in decent enough shape he could contend again.
Again. That’s the key and dangerous word. Because Tiger has previously proved he could be the player again that he once was, there is unrelenting anticipation that this is how it will always be. Tiger’s hurt, Tiger’s out, Tiger might be done … wait, Tiger’s back, and Tiger looks good, repeat. It is a rhythm that should not be eternal for that is not how sports or time or time in sports works.
However, what we saw at Augusta and Southern Hills last year were not the displays of another comeback but a new reality. What we want him to do, he physically can’t. Woods has said as much over and over. “Mobility and endurance of what my leg will do going forward will never be the same. I understand that,” Woods said Tuesday. “That's why I can't prepare and play as many tournaments as I like, but that's my future, and that's OK.” Rory McIlroy echoed those sentiments earlier Tuesday morning: “You know, if he didn't have to walk up these hills and have all of that, I'd say he'd be one of the favorites. He's got all of the shots. It's just that physical limitation of walking 72 holes, especially on a golf course as hilly as this.”
To be fair, it’s not that all fans are blind to what Woods has suffered, and where he is. There’s an argument these truths have deepened their affection for Woods, for while he was always popular he was never beloved like he is now. And not all who come out expect the Woods of old. They just want to say they saw him even if what they are watching can be tough to watch.
In that same breath, any of those who followed Woods last year or the years before, or even this week at Augusta National—which, conservatively, seemed to be around a third of those in attendance—can testify reasonable perspectives are in short supply. The majority of the crowd still thinks, still hopes, still believes Woods remains Tiger Woods, for greatness radiates a magnetism that outlives the source.
But for how long? Woods is nearing 50. Will he still be the sun the sport revolves around then? What about 55, 60? Does he need to experience years of missed cuts for the crowds to go away? Does he need another star—a magnetic, dominant, capital "S" crossover star—to siphon the attention? Or will the circus never end, his future playing out like a rock band who hasn't produced an album in decades but continues to sell out arenas because fans just want to relive what once was?
Of course there’s a chance Woods isn’t ready for the show to be done, either. Those concessions may be coming from Woods’ brain, but his fire and his heart say otherwise. Woods put his body through hell just to tee it up again, and he’s not teeing it up simply for ceremony. He has no appetite for that, as he showed last summer at St. Andrews. He was afforded the chance to stop at Swilcan Bridge last summer, to perch his leg on the venerable stone and wave goodbye. That’s what all the greats do. Instead, Woods kept walking. Perhaps that was his last opportunity to play the Old Course as a true competitor, but Woods was not ready to concede as much.
And yet, if there is one place where Woods can be Woods again, it’s Augusta National, the place that is not bound by the constraints of reality and time. And Woods has said over and over and over that he only plays in tournaments that he knows he can win.
“A lot of it has been understanding the golf course, and I know the golf course," Woods said earlier in the week. "So I've been able to recreate a lot of the chip shots at home in my backyard or I'm at Medalist hitting balls off the side of lies, trying to simulate shots and rehearsing again and again each and every flag location, each and every shot I would possibly hit. You know I don't sleep very well, so going through it and rummaging through the data bank and how to hit shots from each and every place and rehearsing it; that's the only way that I can compete here."
This week, however, showed that while he can compete—he did, after all, make his 23rd consecutive cut at the Masters—he cannot contend, looking gassed from the start and running on empty to the bitter end.
It should be noted that Woods played his Monday practice round with Fred Couples, McIlroy and Tom Kim. The past, present, future. Physically, Woods’ analog of the group is Couples, a player whose beautiful game has been hampered by injury. Emotionally, it’s Kim, a golf geek who plays the game with unbridled joy. But mentally, and spiritually, he’s the closest with McIlroy, certified alphas who think the only things standing in their way are themselves.
Unfortunately, it appears the Tiger of now will keep the Tiger of old from having a future.
It is unclear when Woods will make his next start. Possibly at the PGA Championship in May, but with iffy weather to be expected during the spring in upstate New York, the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club seems like the best guess. No matter the next appearance the point remains the same. Tiger Woods does not have many steps left, so you better believe he’s going to make them count. Enjoy them while you can.
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