The natural order of all life is to ripen and then fade, and while writing those words might make me sound like a fatalistic Scandinavian novelist, they are also—obviously—true. They are true in the abstract sense when you're young, and then true in an increasingly painful sense when that youth is gone. I am seven years younger than Tiger Woods, and while there are vast metaphorical acres of talent and money separating us on the human level, I would wager that now and again, in these last few years, we've had the same basic thought: How has all this time passed?
The fact that this specific thought doubles as one of the world's oldest cliches only makes the unsparing reality bite harder. But listen: We're not here to feel sorry for ourselves. We're here to state another basic fact, which is that the only unpredictable element of this is how long the season of one's prime lasts, and how long we can hold off the great fade. Tiger Woods is fading, but he has not yet faded. This small distinction is crucial, and might be a miracle, too, owing itself to his supernatural ability and his chosen sport. Who else could have lived his punishing life and remained at least distantly viable at 47? In what sport but golf could you live any life and remain relevant at 47?
"Relevant" is doing some work there, granted, but Tiger has made four cuts in five events over the last two years, despite being in obvious pain and withdrawing before tournament's end in two of them. Four of those tournaments were majors, and he's still less than five years removed from winning his 15th major at Augusta. He is not in tip-top shape, but what lends his return at the Hero World Challenge this week its fascination is the promise of greatness bubbling just beneath the surface, and no amount of cynicism can deny its gravity. You know something special can happen, whether you love him or hate him. You know the possibility exists.
How much longer do you think we have to appreciate greatness? In Tiger's case, a number should be easy to pinpoint, but it's not. He says he wants to play five to six tournaments next year. He's hinted that he wants to play on the senior circuit when he turns 50. We understand his body could betray him again, in minor or devastatingly major ways. This weekend could be the last 72-hole event he ever plays, and it wouldn't be surprising. But if you told me that he was going to win a major championship at age 52, following a period of stable health, that wouldn't shock me either; it would set a record, but who's more likely to set that record than the greatest golfer in human history? But the central variable, the "how long," is unknowable, and the element of uncertainty should drive us to his corner with a mix of melancholy and desperation.
But who am I to talk? I haven't been the greatest Tiger appreciator in the world. The magic of his debut captured me, of course, but as I got older and witnessed the degree to which he was a corporate product, it had a way of obscuring the special ability at the heart of all the hype, so that when he won majors, it was like Nike winning, rather than a human who happened to be wearing Nike clothing. When he became a tabloid figure after Thanksgiving 2009, it was like that same corporate machine malfunctioning, rather than a man succumbing to a lifetime of unbelievable pressure and exposure. That was short-sighted, to lose my grip on him.
It got worse. In 2015, frustrated that he was dominating the discourse in his absence at the same moment that I wanted people to care a lot about the game's young players, I wrote what might be the most ill-advised, but definitely the funniest piece of my Golf Digest career, in which I declared Tiger Woods "unequivocally done" and reaped the ugly but richly deserved social media rewards four years later when he won the Masters.
Point being, I spent a large part of Tiger's prime missing the point of what I was seeing and was forced to spend his resurgence in the digital fetal position. Now, in his state of fading, I have to clutch what I can clutch, here at the last minute, and though I never quite grasped what we had in him, I can now see clearly what we're going to lose. It's a thing you can't replace, and that makes everyone in his shadow look like a pretender.
It's a thing called human greatness. Divorced from the complications of personality, behavior, culture, and capital. Plain, undeniable, and human greatness. The time may be coming when technology strips human greatness of its place atop the hierarchy, when we're no longer, even in our own minds, the most important beings in the universe. The time is definitely coming when the greatest golfer of all time will have lost the last glow of his prime, and we can no longer credibly claim even a wisp of athletic relevancy on his behalf. We will be forced to interact with younger sports fans who know him only as a name, the way you and I might know someone like Bjorn Borg today. He is fading, and there's nothing we can do about it because we're fading too.
With Tiger Woods, we're standing on the edge of permanence. The ephemeral part was his glory; the eternal part is its absence. This week, and whatever weeks are left, hold on.