In the 2000’s sports was dominated by a single nickname: TIGER.
Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was as close to a perfect athlete as the world had ever seen. He turned professional in 1996, won his first major a year later, and dominated the game of golf for the next decade. Men admired his power, women marveled at his physique and children would spend hours playing his video game. Woods even replaced the great Michael Jordan as the face of Nike. He was as close to perfect as an athlete could get.
Last week’s news that he was shutting his swing down on tour until his game improves wasn’t as earth shaking as it would have been five or six years ago. His recent struggles and nagging injuries have kept him out of contention. What happened to this once invincible athlete? To the monstrous swing, the sweet touch of the putter and that thunderous fist pump?
Although first impressions would lead critics to point towards the tabloids and gossip columns of Woods’ infidelity as the reason for his decline, that sweet swing that used to land the second shot of a par 5 inches from the cup, that now puts him 30 feet out of bounds, has much more behind it than that.
Less than a year into his professional career, the world knew who Tiger was. At a time in their life where most 20 year olds are praying their fake ID will work for one more year, Tiger had won the Masters by a record 12 strokes. For the next decade-plus there was no changing the channel on Sunday afternoon. It was never a question of will he win; it was a question of how many stokes will he win by.
That was then.
Now when Tiger is on the television, you either change the channel because you can’t stand watching him bomb the ball by the hole or shank a chip into the bunker, or you cross your fingers hoping that just maybe this next shot will turn his career around for one more run at the Golden Record – Jack Nicholas’ 18 Major Championships.
Woods, now 39, has been swinging the sticks all over the world on tour for two full decades. Players such as Steve Striker and Angel Cabrera have stayed consistent in their 40’s still making putts and taking pictures with oversized checks, but why can’t Tiger do that? The answer is simple. He was just too good for too long.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated US Olympian with 22 medals, lapped everyone in the pool from 2002-2012. Raphael Nadal’s 16 Major Championships were scored from 2003-2012. Muhammad Ali reined the ring for 14 years as champion with his last win coming at the age of 39. Michel Jordan earned six rings between 1991 and 1998. These athletes competed at the highest level, won the grandest prize and were the face of their sport for their decade.
After their ten-year run at the top, others in their field caught up. It’s just too damn hard to be that damn good for that long. Pushing your body as an athlete for that many hours on the road takes a toll on the longevity of a career. No wonder Tiger can barely swing a wedge without cringing in pain. He spent a decade leading the pack, scorching drives down fairways and fist pumping 50-foot putts against the best the world had to offer. Expecting him to do that for 15 or 20 years in unreasonable. He’s a great athlete, but he’s not a robot.
Woods did that for a full decade on tour. From 1997 to 2008 he put on the Master’s green jacket and raised the PGA trophy four times apiece. He won both the US Open and British Open three times as well. It was all Woods in that stretch. Everyone else was just playing for a runner’s-up check.
Now you have names such as Rory McElroy (turned pro in 2007), Bubba Watson (2003) and Jason Day (2006) leading the Sunday morning leader boards. Sure these guys have all seen Tiger walk the 18th fairway with a handful of strokes in the lead, but that was on television when they were younger. Now, in person 10 years later, Woods is much less intimidating. The Tiger others use to fear is a thing of the past.
While Tiger didn’t make any new fans when he was in the spotlight for his infidelity scandals, it’s tough for anyone to doubt his greatness. It’s just a shame that possibly the greatest golfer to ever tee it up is having to take time away from the game to figure out what’s wrong with his swing. It might be physical, it might be mental, but one thing is for sure, the man who spent 454 of a possible 520 weeks as the number one golfer in the world, was so good at the peak of his career that anything other than brilliance and dominance on the links will seem like a struggle. He won’t be breaking 72 round after round anymore, but should we expect him to? He was so good at the beginning of the century that we thought he’d never miss a chip or a putt again. That ten-year stretch may be the best golf ever played and he set the standard for what to expect from Tiger. While taking this sabbatical from the tour all Eldrick really needs to do is look at the record books and realize he was just too damn good for too damn long.
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