My father was always an excellent story-teller—whether recounting an anecdote about some of the famous people he worked with in the performing arts, or telling a joke.
Last week, I was reading the statements put out by Tiger Woods and his agent, Mark Steinberg, in the wake of Woods’ latest surgery and I was reminded of one of my dad’s old jokes.
It is about two brothers—let’s call them John and Bobby. John loves cats. Bobby can’t stand them. John goes out of town for a few days and asks Bobby to take care of his cat—let’s call him Tiger because he’s orange with brown stripes. Grudgingly, Bobby agrees. One day, John calls Bobby from the road and says, “how’s Tiger?”
“Tiger’s dead,” Bobby answers.
Stunned and a little bit angry, John says, “You know, you could have been a little more sensitive about this. You could have first said, ‘well Tiger got up on the roof and, well, he fell off.’ Then, tomorrow when I called, you could have said, ‘the vet is doing all he can, but Tiger is in rough shape.’ THEN, the next day you could have gently said, ‘I’m sorry John, Tiger passed away.’ That would have given me time to prepare for this emotionally.”
“Sorry,” Bobby answers.
“Now,” John says, “Tell me how mom’s doing?”
“Mom got up on the roof,” Bobby answers.
I thought of that joke as I read each of the statements. Both said the same thing: the fusion surgery Woods had undergone shortly after saying at a press conference for a golf course he’s designing that he was, “making progress,” was the last resort for Woods—three prior surgeries having failed to stop the persistent pain that has kept him from playing competitive golf for most of three years.
The part about the operation being successful and how optimistic Woods was afterwards is standard stuff. It was what came after all the pabulum that got my attention. The surgery would, both Woods and Steinberg hoped, allow him to return to 1. A normal pain-free life…2. A life where he could regularly play with his children and….3. competitive golf.
Competitive golf was third—with no mention of getting to the point where he could compete and WIN on the PGA Tour.
It felt to me like the statements were designed to describe Woods’ golf career the way John would have preferred Bobby describe Tiger the cat’s demise…Tiger’s career got up on the roof and took a fall…Tiger’s career is at the vet; they’re doing everything they can for him and…well, give us a call tomorrow.
I will pause here to give the disclaimer I have used every time I have written about or talked about Woods’ career since he began limping off golf courses; having his glutes fail or shooting 82 with the chipping yips: You never count out the elite of the elite, in any sport.
There is no point right now in getting into what is sure to become the age old argument: Nicklaus (Jack) or Woods? One of them is the greatest player of all time. At worst, Woods is the second greatest to ever to tee it up (I’ve always been in the club that says when he was at his dominant best no one was better) and there’s no doubt he and Arnold Palmer did more to grow the game in different eras than anyone.
If anyone else playing the game today had been through the physical traumas that Woods’ body has experienced, not to mention the emotional angst that he (and his father) inflicted on him, I wouldn’t give it a second thought: game, set, match, let’s start summing up his career.
But because he’s Tiger Woods, because he pulled off shots no one thought imagine-able and won in ways no one dreamed of—12 shot win at the Masters at age 21; 15 shot win at the U.S. Open in 2000; eight-shot win at The Open Championship a month later—and on and on, you hang on to those last shreds of hope that somehow the vet might pull him through one more time.
As the vet said to George Costanza (Seinfeld reference for you young folks), ‘he won’t be the same squirrel.’ Of that, there’s no doubt; Woods will never be TIGER WOODS again and let’s hope he’s at least made peace with that fact. His comments last year that if he’s done winning he’s had a great career would indicate that he’s at least considered it.
Remember, when Woods withdrew in Dubai back in February, he insisted that he just had back spasms and didn’t want to risk further injuring the back by playing even though he was being paid a huge appearance fee. Instead, he dragged himself through a Q-and-A with former R+A chief executive Peter Dawson in order to keep the folks in Dubai as happy as he possibly could. No doubt, he would have much preferred to be playing golf.
Then came all the mixed reports—always the case when Woods is away from the golf course since he shuts himself off from the media and the public—about how seriously he was hurt. Two weeks prior to the Masters, his friend Notah Begay bet me dinner that Woods would play at Augusta. During the Masters, Notah went on radio and said something about Tiger coming back sometime after The Players Championship.
That set off a frenzy which stunned Notah. “Basically I was saying it wouldn’t be BEFORE The Players that he came back and people started thinking I knew something about exactly when he’d come back,” he said. “I didn’t and I wasn’t saying I did.”
Well, now we know for certain that Woods won’t play in any of the majors for a second straight year. Realistically, if everything goes absolutely right with his recovery and rehab (again) he might play in his exhibition in the Bahamas in December—just as he did this past year. Woods’ ‘comebacks,’ now need roman numerals.
Of course every comeback in the last few years has been followed soon after by another withdrawal—he even entered a tournament last fall on a Friday and then withdrew the following Tuesday without so much as playing a practice round.
“He was healthy,” one friend (not Begay) told me. “But when he tried to practice the week before he couldn’t keep the ball on the golf course. He probably wouldn’t have broken 80 the was he was hitting it. He withdrew to avoid embarrassment.”
The question is this: when does Woods decide he’s embarrassed himself enough? Between the withdrawals; the missed cuts (the real Tiger Woods almost NEVER missed a cut, I mean NEVER); the 82’s in Phoenix, the 80’s to open the U.S. Open (Chambers Bay 2015); the 77-WDs and on-and-on, his golf game has become the scene of an accident. You cringe, but you can’t stop looking.
To say that Woods has nothing to prove is redundant and irrelevant. It is perfectly understandable that he still wants to play; still wants to stick it to the nay-sayers who have declared him done and, like any great athlete doesn’t want to die the athlete’s first death until he no longer has a choice.
It’s been said for the last couple of years that his career is on the 18th hole—maybe even the 18th green. It is entirely possible that now is the time for someone to give him that final putt and buy him a drink at the bar. It should be champagne to celebrate an extraordinary career.
The best thing for Woods and all who have marveled at his play for most of 20 years might be for someone to talk him down from the roof before he takes that final fall.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,”—is currently out in paperback and on The New York Times sports bestseller list. The hard cover version was on the Times list for six months. His new book, “The First Major—Inside the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October. It can be pre-ordered onruline now. He is also the winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award in the Young Adult category for his mystery, “Last Shot—Mystery at the Final Four.”