Sporting Life

To say adieu to sport is hard, especially for the single-minded like Woods

They know it's coming. They know because their tired bones tell them sore tales and the calendar registers their advancing age and the computer spits out their declining results. They know it's coming and they fight to delay it but this scrap they can't win. Retirement in sport is unstoppable and cruel, or as the baseballer Jackie Robinson apparently put it: "Athletes die twice."

Retirement in sport is fascinating because it is, in a sense, a capitulation. To quit, after all, is to concede. To accept you are no longer relevant and your goals unreachable. Which is why it's impossible to guess when Tiger Woods, as proud an athlete as might be found, will cling-film his clubs. Of course, golfers don't really retire but limp along, but is he even close to that acceptance, to that place where he knows nothing is left? It's one of the most intriguing riddles in contemporary sport.

Single-mindedness was Woods' weapon and now could it be his weakness? His recent life has been a frustrating cycle of rest, play, injury, withdraw and yet only the single-minded man would keep going. It's crazy, and absurd, and absolutely understandable: after all, since when do the single-minded bow to basic logic? Steve Redgrave, the rower, retired after the 1996 Olympics, but despite ulcerative colitis and diabetes returned to win a fifth gold in 2000.

Retirement is possibly the only part of any athlete's life that is not to be envied. This is the only time that it's sweeter to be an accountant, musician or teacher for while athletes may be gods, it's these others who are - at least in working years - the immortal ones. James Taylor, for instance, is coming to sing in Singapore this month at 68; Derek Wong played badminton for Singapore and is done at 28.

When Wong, a Commonwealth Games silver medallist who retired in September last year, sits in front of his television now, something astonishing occurs. As he watches men hit a shot, sometimes his own body "jerks". As if the game is so deeply encoded into his being that it twitches in response to a falling shuttle miles away.

"I want to be there," the genial Wong says, proving that often an athlete may leave the game but the game stays with him. "I miss standing on the court," he says, with the lights shining on him, a challenge arriving and his training tested.


The road ahead is rough and uneven for Tiger Woods, the former world No. 1 golfer now ranked 693rd. After seven operations on his knee and back, he has to decide if his repeated attempts to resurrect his career is actually doing more harm to his body. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Singapore golfer Lam Chih Bing, at 40 a year younger than Woods, knows the feeling for he's just retired and yet isn't completely retired. "Ninety-five per cent," he laughs. "Never say never," he adds, and in his reluctance to confirm his status you can sense his struggle. Perhaps just uttering the word 'retired' is corroboration that he is done. "You know how hard it is to walk away," he says.

Little in sport is more complicated than farewell. People ask why athletes don't go out on top, but how do they know it's the top unless they push further? How do they know what's left? How can unsatisfied people be satisfied? If Michael Phelps accepted the eight Olympic golds in Beijing was the top, he would never have won nine more.

Little in sport is more complicated than farewell. People ask why athletes don't go out on top, but how do they know it's the top unless they push further? How do they know what's left? How can unsatisfied people be satisfied? If Michael Phelps accepted the eight Olympic golds in Beijing was the top, he would never have won nine more.

So even though Woods has missed the cut in one official event this year and withdrawn from another and will miss a few more tournaments, it's not hard to understand his reluctance to walk away from a game he used to own. His default position is to keep striving.

It took Lam a couple of years to arrive at his decision to retire. Wong took less time but was reasonably clear: "I couldn't see myself playing at an even higher level." His back hurt, and age slowed recovery, and he couldn't push himself more than he already was.

This then is Woods' quandary, his ability to weigh a life after seven surgeries to his knee and back: how good can he actually be versus how badly is he damaging his body? How much is he allowed to train versus how much he needs to if he has to legitimately compete?

If it takes long to make this decision it's because champions have doctorates in suffering and we're grateful for their stubbornness. By delaying retirement or making comebacks, they - Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis - offer us insight into their mysterious selves. In their desperation we see loneliness, an addiction to competition, a love for the spotlight and even greed. It's akin to a brilliant madness.

Who knows where Woods has reached, whether he's edging closer to the precipice of goodbye, but his story has a poignance to it. He is the equivalent of the writer with fading memory and the cellist with arthritis. The damaged artist.

Will he make the Masters in April, people ask? Will he ever win a title? We cannot guess for the scripts of sport are sometimes beyond our imagination. If any proof is required, Woods can call another old fellow who knows about back spasms.

No doubt he can find Roger's number.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'To say adieu to sport is hard, especially for the single-minded like Woods'. Print Edition | Subscribe