Tiger Woods recently checked into a clinic to receive help to deal with prescription medication for pain and a sleep disorder.
Every time I think about Tiger Woods telling a police officer he cannot bend over and tie his shoes, there is a voice in the back of my head that I simply can’t shake. It’s something I never thought I’d think, much less say out loud:
I don’t want this man to try to play golf anymore.
Tiger’s body is broken. This has been apparent for a long time, but the golf universe seems so emotionally (and financially) invested in his return, we keep holding out hope that he can be rebuilt, like The Six Million Dollar Man. We’re deluding ourselves. It’s clear he has been in physical pain for much of his adult life, and no miracle back surgery is likely to change that narrative. Throughout his prime, Tiger swung a club with so much torque and ferocity, the damage it did was gradual, but once it reached a certain point, the fallout was sudden. He aged like an NFL running back, not a golfer, and now the idea that he might emerge from rehab and play without the help of opioids seems ludicrous. Wanting him to return at this point is wanting to see him suffer in real time. I’m not sure I want to be a party to that torture any longer.
But I also don’t want Tiger to leave the world of golf entirely, climb aboard his boat, Privacy, and disappear. I don’t think he wants that either. I think Tiger Woods is still yearning for connection, and giving fellow Tour pros grief on the driving range is one of the few places left in the world where he seems at peace, entirely himself. I suspect one of the things that stings the most about being in rehab this week is missing his own tournament, the Quicken Loans National, even if all he planned to do was gingerly walk around and joke with fellow pros. He has admitted in recent years that he misses the camaraderie of the guys on Tour, the buzz around the putting green.
There is an anecdote in Hank Haney’s book, “The Big Miss,” about working with Tiger that has always struck me as one of the most revealing windows into Tiger’s world. Near the end of the narrative, after various ups and downs in their relationship, Haney tells Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, that he wants to quit as Tiger’s coach, that he’s weary of Tiger’s stubbornness and annoyed that Tiger keeps taking subtle shots at him in the media when he doesn’t play well. They had a good run, but it’s time to part ways. Steinberg is livid in response and desperately tries to convince Haney to stay. Don’t do this to him. Steinberg says. You’re one of his best friends.
Haney is flabbergasted. One of his best friends? How could Tiger believe that? Haney felt as if he barely knew the real Tiger. But that showed how few close friends Tiger really had in the world. Despite the people Tiger did trust and felt close to, he was still most comfortable communicating in the language of golf.
And therein lies the answer to Tiger’s future. He shouldn’t come back and try to play golf. He should come back and coach, become a Yoda-esque figure within the game, offering little bits of wisdom to a generation of golfers who would hang on his every word. Plenty of superstar athletes don’t have the patience to be great coaches or the temperament to be great teachers, even if they were obsessive about their craft during their careers. Tiger is different. If you think getting paid to be someone’s swing consultant is beneath him, the equivalent of Mozart giving piano lessons to teenagers, understand this: Tiger is the biggest swing geek in the history of golf. He loves talking about and obsessing over why certain swings work.
At last year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, when Tiger served as an assistant captain for the United States, I happened to be standing next to him inside the ropes during one of Jordan Spieth’s and Patrick Reed’s matches. I was lucky enough to listen as he attempted for five straight minutes to explain to golfer Hunter Mahan (who was attending the Ryder Cup as a fan) just how fascinated he was with Thomas Pieters’ grip. It was the nerdiest, most granular golf conversation I’ve ever heard, and I was riveted. From everything I’ve heard over the past six months, Tiger was an essential part of Team USA’s Ryder Cup win; he was basically the team’s co-captain, even though all he did occurred behind closed doors. He didn’t need credit, he just wanted to get the Cup back after being forced to hear, so many times, that he didn’t care about the event.
With a select group of players, he could play the quiet role of swing and strategy guru for the next 20 years. It wouldn’t need to be a formal agreement. Tiger wouldn’t want to get bogged down in specifics, or feel in any way subservient to a player he didn’t think was listening. There are snippets of evidence that it’s already happening. During his news conference before the Travelers, Jason Day said Tiger reached out to him, mentioning he had been studying Day’s swing on television.
“He texted me after I shot 79 [in the first round of the U.S. Open] and said, ‘Hey, before you work on something, call me, because I saw something,’ ” Day said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you saw 79 shots.’ I was so mad, I didn’t call him back.”
Day ought to call Tiger back and beg him to agree to weekly film sessions. Millions of words have been written about Tiger’s physical prowess on the golf course, but even now, we still underrate how strategically prepared he was week after week. Tiger didn’t win 79 tournaments simply because he showed up at an event on Tuesday and was better than anyone in the field. He won that many times because he understood how to turn bad rounds into mediocre ones, how to grind his way into competition on days when he didn’t have perfect timing.
Imagine what Rory McIlroy could do if he had Tiger in his ear for a year, helping plot his way around a course. McIlroy — along with Day, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas — can match so many of Tiger’s physical gifts. But they can’t touch him when it comes to strategy or adaptability. McIlroy and Day, in particular, tend to struggle when forced to go with Plan B. They don’t have a reliable one-way miss when the round starts to go sideways. They hit bombs off the tee but often look lost when they need to dial it back and plot a less macho approach to attacking holes.
Tiger hit stingers and fairway when he couldn’t trust his driver; he hit low-cut 3-irons when he wanted to play the ball through the wind or run it up to a back pin. He fiddled with his grip and with how far he took the club back, and listened closely to what Butch Harmon, Haney and Sean Foley had to say, then blended together pieces and came up with a formula that was entirely his own. Tiger has always been both a scientist and an artist on the golf course, and while his joints and ligaments and nerves might be a mess, his mind is still capable of winning majors.
Consider this: Nick Faldo is one of the only players in history to find success with one swing, then tear it down and rebuild, only to return to form and win again with a new swing. Most golfers get lost along the way, stuck between patterns with their synapse and muscle memory misfiring. Most of them never recover.
Tiger tore apart his swing, and successfully rebuilt it … four times.
Maybe you want to see him attempt a fifth. And perhaps, through a combination of surgery and therapy and time, he could do it. It would be magic to witness one more Sunday charge at a major. It would top Jack Nicklaus’ win at the 1986 Masters by leaps and bounds. But how realistic is that fantasy? How can he ever hit driver over four days and keep up with McIlroy and Johnson? Tiger rode the throttle until his wheels came off, and now his body has nothing left to give. If I had one wish for him, it would be that his back and knees will recover enough and hold up well enough so he can play family rounds of golf with his kids, daughter Sam and son Charlie.
Charlie Woods already has a buttery, rhythmic swing. You can occasionally find clips of it on the Internet. His son has never had formal lessons, Tiger revealed several years ago. Charlie simply learned by watching and mimicking his father, getting visual instruction from the greatest analytical mind the game has ever known.
I’m convinced Tiger would be great at this. Why not tinker around with it, using the best players in the world as a test run, until Charlie comes of age?
I won’t rule out a medical miracle, but I’m ready to embrace reality. Is Tiger?