It's long past time to let go of the Tiger Woods you once knew

August 9, 2020

Tiger Woods is unlikely to win another major tournament. He just finished well out of the running at the PGA Championship in San Francisco, and each time another major passes, the odds grow longer that Woods will pull another rabbit out of the hat.

Woods is the greatest golfer of all time. That shouldn’t be controversial anymore, but because there are still people who think golfers whose primes were in the 1960s could hang with today’s athletes, it’s worth briefly explaining how much greater Woods is than the likes of Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, et al.

1) Most of those guys weren’t as athletic as the average pro golfer today. The average pros as recently as the 1980s treated simply working out as an innovative way to get an edge (PDF), while today the number 40 player in the world looks like this and talks about how physical fitness and diet are a key part of being a successful pro.

2) To that point, imagine someone today smoking a ciggie during the third round of a major.

3) The overall talent level of elite golfers has been higher over the past two decades than it was before — a common dynamic across sports — yet Tiger dominated his competition, winning more tournaments over the course of his career than the next two guys combined, Mickelson and Singh, 82 to 70. By the way, those 82 wins are tied with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour wins, period. And one more thing: When it comes to majors, Mickelson is the only contemporary remotely in Woods’s range, and Tiger lapped him there, winning 15 to Phil’s five.

However, Woods is 44 years old now. In the past three decades, there have been 12 major winners in their 40s, and the oldest was Hale Irwin at age 45 in 1990. Mickelson and Singh, two of the greatest “old golfers” ever, each won only one major after age 40. Woods won last year’s Masters at age 43, but before that hadn’t won a major since 2008, when he was 32. He hasn’t won a World Golf Championship tournament since 2013. He’s struggled with injuries and the implosion of his personal life, and has only won three tournaments, total, since the start of the 2014 season.

Even if you want to stipulate that from here on out Woods will be the greatest “old golfer” in history, that could mean he’ll win a handful more tournaments, make some noise at a few majors, and won’t embarrass himself on the course.

To put this in starker terms, back in 2013, I started proclaiming that it would be a good bet to take the under on Woods winning 1.5 more majors, mainly because his body appeared wrecked and he’d already reached an age when pro golfers tend to decline. At the time, I imagined he’d remain talented enough to make a serious run in a major and perhaps pull one out. And he did!

But the chances of that happening again get slimmer as each day goes by. In the most optimistic scenario, Woods has another five years to win a major, which means he has about 20 more chances. Considering his injury history, that every golfer declines over time, and that there are plenty of talented young golfers providing tough competition, why would you think he’d win another one? He’s gone one for the last 48 majors!

I think a big part of the optimism I see in people when they think about Woods is that he was a singular athlete. No one else in golf’s history has combined his utter confidence, physicality, and charisma, and all of it played out at time when burgeoning online communities could share their awe of his abilities and help build his legend in a way that stood out, even compared to other sporting icons like LeBron James.

As great as Jack Nicklaus was, and even though he played on television regularly, his 1986 Masters victory, with Verne Lundquist’s emphatic “Yes sir!” call, might be his only iconic mass media moment. Woods has a raft of Nike commercials, the chip on 16 at Augusta in 2005, a whole bunch of other shots, and his red Sunday shirt that are part of the sports canon.

And it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s all over. That Tiger Woods has been gone for more than a decade. Like the people who can’t let go of Michael Jordan, I suspect there’s a large segment of the sports fan population that can’t let go of the transcendent Tiger because his greatness made them giddy, and admitting it’s gone is painful.

He probably won’t win another major. There’s a real chance Tiger won’t win another PGA Tour event. That doesn’t change how happy he once made you feel. You’re allowed to cherish those memories and we ought to be grateful it’s now extremely easy to relive so many of them.

(Photo: "2009 AT&T National, Earl Woods Memorial Pro-am" by Chris Wellner. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)