It ill bodes anyone to write off one of the all-time sporting greats, not least for fear of one’s words coming back to bite one on the bum.
However, today I read about Tiger Woods’ ignominious retirement with a back injury from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines after just ten holes with a deep sense of sadness and ‘what might have been’. This enforced withdrawal followed his previous week’s mind-numbing 82 at Phoenix which was attributed by some respected pundits as an attack of the yips when putting or chipping.
There is no need here to review Woods’ career or pronounce the last rites on his quest to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major victories – he’s been stuck on 14 since the US Open of 2008. These days I’m more interested in the process and reasons for his decline.
The fact is that we ordinary mortals all love – we all need – sporting heroes. As kids we revel in the concept that there exist uniquely gifted individuals who somehow transcend the physical and skill limits which constrain the rest of us.
Readers can compile their own lists, but for present purposes I shall just offer a few of my favourite candidates – such as Michael Jordan (basketball); Muhammad Ali (boxing); Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar (cricket) Pele, George Best, Ronaldo, Messi and Les Strong (soccer); Barry John and David Campese (rugby union); Juan Manuel Fangio (motor racing); Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (tennis); Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Secretariat, Shergar, Brigadier Gerard and Frankel (horse racing); and of course Barry Sheene (motor cycling).
In our worshipping days we weren’t bothered about issues such as whether it was just the product of instinctive genius or, alternatively, sheer unending [10,000 hours or not, as the theory now goes] slog on the training or practice ground. What mattered was that these superstars could do things way beyond the ability of most of their fellow competitors, let alone the rest of us, and – for the most part – also managed to make it look tantalisingly easy and effortless.
As for their rare failures and off days? Well, ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ – everybody knows that.
Time waits for no man. ‘They never come back’ is an old boxing adage which has its message steeped in the lessons of history – there are notable exceptions, of course [the ones that prove the rule?], but generally this theme holds true.
There are also innumerable examples of self-destruction – in their various ways, all of them tragic … whether involving inner demons, sexual temptations, drugs, alcohol, violence or relationship breakdowns (or combinations of the above).
And, of course, sometimes events can conspire. How many great athletes have missed out on their potential crowning glories – e.g. Olympic immortality – as a result of untimely injury or even governmental interference and boycott?
Slings and arrows, outrageously (unfair) fortune perhaps.
Tiger Woods has had an amazing career. In many respects he has been the Muhammad Ali of golf – and that’s no glib comment upon his racial type, or should I say mix? In many respects he became the fundamental apex of his sport, the one man whose name in a tournament’s starting line-up ensured its commercial success. The man who attracted so much sponsorship – and such enormous global television audiences – that, following in his wake, hundreds [no, make that thousands] of professional golfers over the past fifteen years have become multi-millionaires simply by the random chance of being around in the same era … and indeed many hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of youngsters have been inspired to pick up a golf club for the first time.
Millions of words have been, and will be, written analysing his career – its ups and downs, its brilliance, its failures, its slices of luck, good and bad.
Has his decline over the past ten years been simply caused by the inexorable march of Time?
Was it the sad and inevitable product of the enormous strains he placed upon his body in developing the strength and extraordinary flexibilities that enabled him to hit the ball so far and with such accuracy?
Did it – directly or otherwise – just automatically flow from his ascent to the throne of global icon-hood and the ‘celebrity bubble’ that comes with it, accompanied by that human tendency to ‘disconnect’ from ordinary life as one inevitably becomes used to living by different, privileged, rules to the rest of us?
Whatever the truth, it is now difficult to escape the conclusion that – at the relatively young age of 39 – Tiger Woods is washed up. His fellow players don’t fear him anymore, in fact those that are charitable about it probably pity him.
He still commands the attention of the world’s media, of course – he’s still ‘box office’ in that respect. He still gives interviews with the same of mix of faux humility and underlying conviction that his next round of golf will prove to be the start of his return to Mount Olympus of genuine Major contention.
The sad aspect is that in the golf sections of radio and television sports bulletins these days, they report on the leaders of the latest tournaments … and then upon Tiger’s latest mishaps, triple-bogeys and injury-forced withdrawals as an afterthought, rather in the style that Trevor Macdonald used to send News At Ten viewers into the last sets of commercials with the line “… And, after the break, we bring you news of Snowy, the skateboarding duck …”