Tiger at 40: A great run but foggy future

WASHINGTON • Tiger Woods reaches his 40th birthday tomorrow, still recovering from a third back operation with no timetable for another golf comeback and reflective comments about ending his epic career.

The former world No. 1 has 14 Major titles, four shy of the all-time record set by Jack Nicklaus, and 79 PGA victories, three off the career best held by Sam Snead.

But to become lost in the numbers is to miss the point of what Woods has meant to golf, a unique talent who in his moment might just have been the world's greatest sport star, the first black man to win a Major golf crown, sparking "Tiger-mania" and generating a curiosity from fans beyond golf long after his greatest days were behind him.

There is an old saying that life begins at 40. But Woods said last week that he feels at times like a teen and at others far beyond his years due to injuries.

"Mentally, people who know me know I'm like a five-year-old. Physically, sometimes I feel old and sometimes I feel like a teenager," Woods said. "I don't like the polar opposites of the two. I'd like to be somewhere in the middle where I feel 40."

He has not won a Major since the 2008 US Open, in which he limped through a play-off on a broken leg to beat Rocco Mediate. He has been through four knee surgeries, three back operations and a messy sex scandal.

Once-mighty shots might only be memories. Forget record runs. Just playing, let alone winning any event, seems a distant goal now.

"There's really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards," Woods said at his foundation's Hero World Challenge event earlier this month. "Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don't know.

"Pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy. If that's all it entails, then I've had a pretty good run."

Woods will serve as an assistant captain of the US 2016 Ryder Cup team guided by Davis Love. But he has come to grips with the idea that he might never play again.

"It's not what I want to have happen and it's not what I'm planning on having happen, but if it does, it does. I've reconciled myself to it," he told Time magazine.

"Even if I don't come back and I don't play again, I still want to have a quality of life with my kids. I started to lose that with the other surgeries."

Woods told Time that chasing Nicklaus, now 75, was about doing things at a younger age than when Nicklaus had achieved it.

"It was all age-related," he said. "To me, that was important. This guy is the best out there and the best of all time. If I can beat each age that he did it, then I have a chance at being the best."

Nicklaus has one record, Snead another and Arnold Palmer brought television to the sport. But Woods rewrote the game, forcing longer courses, boosting the price TV would pay to show golf and the fitness golfers would need to win, becoming the all-time top sports marketing pitchman before his indiscretions shattered his sponsorship supremacy.

Nicklaus, for one, refuses to write off an 18th Woods Major win, saying: "He has always been a very focused young man with a great work ethic and is tremendously talented.

"To count him out of that would be foolish. He certainly has a very good chance of doing that."

While the British Open has thrown up some over-40 winners in recent years, the only over-40 winner of a US Major since 1999 was Vijay Singh at 41 at the 2004 PGA Championship.

And beyond age 40, only Old Tom Morris won four Majors - the British Opens in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867, the last of them at age 46, the same as Nicklaus when he won his last at the 1986 Masters.

Think Woods might have one more still in him at age 46 at the 2022 Masters?

If that sort of thing matters to him by then, well, as Nicklaus said, "to count him out of that would be foolish".

"Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years?" Woods, now ranked 416th, said.

"I'm still playing golf at the highest level and winning tournaments and Major championships."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Tiger at 40: A great run but foggy future'. Print Edition | Subscribe