Tiger Woods is nearing — and battling — The End
At the Genesis Invitational, it was clear that Tiger Woods has not reached The End. Not yet, anyway.
After four rounds that netted out below par, a handful of mighty roars and a fist pump or five, Tiger enters the meat of the professional golf season having proved his contending days are not yet over. The swing is still plenty powerful and fast. The short game is still crisp and whimsical. The putter is still capable of greatness.
His one-under 283 for the week bested even the most optimistic projection, a reflection not only of the state of his game but also of the state of his body, which appears as healthy and pain-tolerant as it has been since the beginning of the 2020 season. After play concluded, Tiger looked ahead to 2023 and saw an expanse of opportunity; another shot at Augusta, the chance for career win No. 83.
“My goal, from here on forward, is to play in all of the majors,” Woods told CBS’s Amanda Renner with a knowing smile. “That was my goal last year, and I played three of the four, this year hopefully I’ll play all four.”
But it was hard to watch Tiger without thinking first of the toll his journey has taken. Perhaps the most notable development of the week was not his ball speed or even his final score, but rather his limp, which improved noticeably from last season’s pained starts at the Masters, PGA and Open. Golf writers and fans watched as nervously during Tiger’s walks up and down the 1st and 18th fairways at Riviera as they did during any towering tee shot or tricky five-footer the 15-time major champ faced all week.
Evidently, he can feel our gaze. During his pre-tournament presser, Woods spoke openly about The End. He knows he’s approaching it, he says, because he’s twice already stared it in the face. Most people don’t get three tries.
“When my back went, man, those were tough surgeries and tough rehabs. I could power through my knee and the meniscus and no ACL, I could power through that, but I could never power through my back,” he said. “That’s when I started realizing the mortality of this game and just sports in general. When you get a little bit older and you get a little more banged up you’re not as invincible as you once were. That’s just a reality for all of us.”
Mortality is a difficult concept for the great ones. The total commitment required to dominate one’s profession does not falter with age like the body does. But when the body fails, mentality can only bear so much weight.
This is the hard part about The End. For the best athletes, they’re the last to know they’ve reached it.
“I remember as a kid growing up watching John Elway speak and just cried that … I could do it but my body won’t allow me to do it anymore,” Woods said. “He’d won two of the last five Super Bowls, but he just could not physically do it anymore.”
It’s fascinating to hear Tiger grapple with these questions. But he doesn’t yet have all the answers. He’s not ready to.
“I would not be out here playing if I didn’t think I could beat these guys and win this event,” he said. “I know that players have played as ambassadors of the game and to try to grow the game. I can’t wrap my mind around that as a competitor. There will come a point in time when my body will not allow me to do that anymore, and it’s probably sooner rather than later, but wrapping my ahead around that transition and being the ambassador role and just trying to be out here with the guys, no, that’s not in my DNA.”
Fortunately, Woods will not have to alter his genetics in the immediate future. The Genesis Invitational was his sixth start (including the PNC Championship) since that dreadful car accident, and it was the sixth time his health appeared improved from its previous appearance. At Riviera, it was clear that Woods still has the gumption to hang around with the very best players in the world. For now, that is.
Of course, if he’s ever to eclipse Snead’s 82 wins, Tiger will need more than just good health. Walking that weekend’s course will not be enough; he must conquer it. He will need to beat the crop of players he inspired, like Sunday’s finalists Max Homa and Jon Rahm, in the process. And, perhaps most presciently, he will need to manage the above while warding off the sound of his own ticking clock. Even for Tiger Woods, this seems unlikely.
But then again, legends are built upon unlikely. Who are our great athletes if not those capable of suspending reality, if only for a few days — or minutes? What is golf’s history, if not defined by those who have achieved the impossible? And who is Tiger Woods, if not both of the above?
Watching Tiger at the Genesis, it was hard not to wonder about Augusta, Rochester, L.A. and Liverpool. Maybe there’s more magic in our future. Maybe — just maybe — he’s powerful enough to scare away the inevitable.
Yes, The End is coming for Tiger Woods. But that only means we’ll watch closer in the meantime, patiently, as he delays its arrival.