From the Heart
Woods still has the desire, but how long will it last?
officially walked away on Monday night, bringing closure to one of the greatest careers in tennis history. In an emotional tribute at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, the winner of 14 grand slam titles fought back the tears and told the world, "Saying goodbye is not easy, but I know it's time in my heart." He had the movie star wife, the nine-month-old son to raise as his trophy, and the words of John McEnroe
to bid him farewell. "Pete, we respect you," said Johnny Mac. "And that's the highest tribute you can pay a player."
Of course we all respect Tiger Woods
-- players, media, fans -- especially now that the putts aren't falling, the breaks aren't going his way, and the driver isn't behaving. But seeing Sampras go out like that, at age 32, after 15 years of banging heads with McEnroe, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Lleyton Hewitt
, made me wonder just how long Tiger will be willing to fight the fight. With Woods, the intensity has always been turned up so high, the scrutiny so microscopic, that you have to question whether he can sustain the heart it takes to play on his level for the length of time it took Jack Nicklaus
to amass 18 major titles.
Woods is 27, in the prime of his life, his body cut, his passion for the game still unrivaled. One little blip and we're not retiring him. But how many more years like this can he take? How many more grinds are left in him before he pulls a Sampras and checks out?
Tennis players start earlier and burn out faster than golfers, but Woods has been in the vortex now since his teenage years, and is beginning to enjoy life -- as he should. Is the price it will take to match the Nicklaus record really worth it? Is being The Greatest of All Time essential to achieving a full and balanced life? Does Tiger have to win 10 more majors before we acknowledge his place in history -- or has that already been determined?
These are questions that don't need to be answered now, because Woods is still in his mid-to-late twenties, going through the first patch of extended frustration, and what we've come to see in this majorless season is a dogged affinity to fight through the adversity. As David Feherty
pointed out Friday at the NEC Invitational, Woods can look awful (by his standards) and still be on the first page of the leaderboard. This is a tribute to the man's tenacity, not his ball striking.
His swing is not where it was during the four-year stretch of indomitable golf. He is not "wide, tight and ripping it," the way he was from the '99 PGA at Medinah through the Open at Bethpage last summer. Too often he is loose, stuck, and flipping it -- flaws that can't seem to be self-corrected. His drive on the 72nd hole at Firestone -- a violent pull hook into the trees, followed by a clubhead slam into the tee box -- was a replay of what we've seen since the Players Championship. Somewhere after off-season knee surgery, and wins in three of his first four tournaments, Tiger got disconnected and could never "match up" with enough consistency to win major championships.
With Woods, the intensity has always been turned up so high, the scrutiny so microscopic, that you have to question whether he can sustain the heart it takes to play on his level for the length of time it took Jack Nicklaus to amass 18 major titles.
It was a lull by his standards, but not by anyone else's, and therein lies the essence of Woods' growing frustration with the expectations laid down by a phenomenal run of golf. You win four tournaments, have the second-lowest stroke average of all time, make over $4 million in eight months, and people ask you what's wrong? When will the time come when, like Sampras, you wake up not wanting to work out, hit balls, and be totally committed.
What made the legacy of Nicklaus was his longevity, doing it over a longer period of time than anyone in history. There were 26 years between his first and last major, and at the end he was playing hungry, needing a Masters victory in 1986 to bail out a struggling company. With $220 million in the bank already, Woods will never stare at that type of need. He has yet to design a golf course, or star in a summer blockbuster.
The runs of all the other great players have lasted roughly six years. This is Woods' seventh full season. He is exponentially still the greatest player in the game, but this year he is third or fourth best overall in performance, depending on where you rank the seasons of Mike Weir, Davis Love III
, and Jim Furyk
We've seen him beat himself with bad decisions, the first time since 1997 that impetuosity has over-ridden solid course management. Nobody has stood up and beat him head-to-head yet, but the tournaments he used to win -- like last week's NEC -- are ending up as top fives. Yet he goes into this week's Deutsche Bank Championship telling us it's not that far off.
What will it be like five years from now? Say he walked away with 14 majors the way Sampras did, would we think any less of him? The answer would be no. Like Sampras, he has always given the game everything he's had. That's where the respect comes in.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine
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