It’s in the arbitrary nature of sport that even legends seldom exit the stage on a high note.
There are exceptions, sure.
Ted Williams homered in his last at-bat. Pete Sampras went home with the U.S. Open trophy. Lorena Ochoa quit as No. 1 in the world.
More often, great careers peter out with a ground ball like Babe Ruth’s, a series of increasingly disappointing results that finally force a reckoning with the passage of time. Those are the good endings. Others are involuntary, authored by injury or accident. Like that of Maureen Connolly, who won nine Grand Slams but saw her career end with a horse-riding accident at age 19, two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon singles title.
When news emerged about Tiger Woods’ car crash on Tuesday there was a clear and immediate delineation between Woods the man and Woods the golfer, with much of the focus rightly on the former and his physical well-being. An absence of detailed information about his condition, married to the visual of catastrophic damage to his vehicle, ensured that human concern was front and center.
As the day wore achingly on, that angle grew incrementally more positive with news that his injuries were not life-threatening. One could heave a sigh of relief for Woods the man.
Whether those injuries are career-threatening is another matter, and that too is no less valid and appropriate an angle, especially when the subject is the most accomplished athlete in his sport over the past quarter-century.
The conjecture over Tiger’s competitive future will undoubtedly be fevered and it has a long way to run, but even as that conversation developed late Tuesday there rose a counter-narrative, an imbecilic insistence that any discussion of the news beyond extending thoughts and prayers was unconscionable.
Thus does the National Rifle Association find a receptive audience for its efforts to shut down unwelcome debate after every gun violence atrocity with pusillanimous appeals to decency.
Calls to join this chorus of guff even emanated from some who nominally work in golf media, but who somewhere along the way decided that the function of colleagues is not to inform and analyze even in difficult circumstances but to instead act like televangelists in polo shirts.
There’s nothing wrong with extending thoughts and prayers — it’s a fine gesture appreciated by many folks experiencing tough times — but those who want only thoughts and prayers should head to a house of worship and skip the news coverage.
It’s this same soft-pedaling sentiment that criticized media assembled at the L.A. County Sheriff’s press conference for raising questions about possible impairment on the part of Woods. Context matters, and Tiger’s past struggle with pain management medication — according to the toxicology report, he had five drugs in his body when arrested for DUI in May 2017 — makes posing such questions to law enforcement reasonable. Which doesn’t excuse the reckless social media rumor-mongering evident yesterday, as kooks took a break from being experts in epidemiology to demonstrate their chops in substance abuse, psychology and traffic law.
With medical assurances that Woods is no longer in danger, there’s every justification for wondering where he goes from here as a competitive golfer. His accident has shunted aside speculation about whether he would compete at the Masters this April, leaving in its place doubt as to whether he can even play next April and concern that his Augusta National obligations might never again extend beyond the Tuesday night Champions Dinner.
The desire among golf fans to banish this dread possibility is understandable. No one with a shred of empathy who cares about Woods or about this game wants to grapple with the notion that his career could be curtailed as a result of this crash.
But a 45-year-old man who was already physically compromised might not be a great bet to overcome an arduous rehab that could eat deep into his few remaining years as a competitive force. He might not even be a great bet to undertake that challenge.
Woods has a young family and if he faces a quality of life that is somehow diminished in terms of physical mobility, he may decide to invest what he has in his kids, not in chasing anew the rigorous demands of elite golf. What he survived yesterday — a crash law enforcement officials said could easily have been fatal — is the kind of traumatic event that might make a man rethink his priorities in life.
Golf may not make the cut, and no one can begrudge him such a call. Woods has given enough to this sport. If all he can give going forward is fond memories and ceremonial roles, then at least our loss will be his children’s gain.
Published at Golfweek.com, February 24, 2021.