His 40s were always going to be a little complicated.
For so long Tiger Woods seemed destined to arrive at his milestone birthday with more than 20 major championships and chasing 100 PGA Tour wins, and the biggest question would have been, how will he stay motivated in a record book of one?
That was his trajectory when he gutted his way to a 14th major on a postcard pretty Monday at Torrey Pines in 2008, back when Tiger was still picking off a major a season, back when his golden years looked like they would be one long standing ovation, a whistle-stop tour through the schedule.
Maybe he'd get a surfboard in San Diego. Jack might gift him with a lifetime supply of Memorial milkshakes. Arnie? He'd just bust Tiger's chops with a rocking chair at Bay Hill.
You could easily picture it because that's where this story was going – until Thanksgiving 2009 changed everything, and the greatest player of his generation became fodder for the New York Post.
Many observers thought he would never recover from that dark episode, but he emerged from the bottom rung of tabloid hell to win three times in 2012, five times in 2013 and reclaim the world No. 1 ranking with a third swing coach. When he won the ’13 Players by carving shots through Pete Dye's labyrinth, he spiked the football in the face of his doubters, and it all felt so right.
"I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done," Woods said in that post-victory press conference. "But I'm not."
Could major No. 15 have been that far behind?
Instead, we were given the vision of Woods crumbling to his knees at that year's Barclays, followed by two more years of fits and starts, three back surgeries, and an unspecified number of skulled chips. Then came his unexpected pronouncements at his Hero World Challenge earlier this month that he had no timetable for a return to the PGA Tour and that anything accomplished in golf henceforth would be “gravy.”
Those were the sound bites played over and over, plus nuggets from a revealing Q & A in Time Magazine that showed Tiger in a way few had ever seen.
"He's matured from a 20-year-old that was thrown into the spotlight into a 40-year-old who's learned from the good, the bad and the ugly – all of it," says his long-time friend, John Cook. "He's looking at the big picture now. 'What are the next 10 years of my life going to look like?'"
We thought we had a pretty good idea. Tiger would put miles between himself and Jack, joust with this young wave of players who grew up in his image, and ride off into a Scottish sunset, just like the greats before him.
What now? Doubt, is what. With Tiger, 40 isn't the new 30. It's just 40, or maybe older. It's surgically repaired. It's nearly eight years removed from a major and six from scandal.
With Tiger, 40 is anybody's guess.
"At 38, 39, 40, Tiger Woods very quickly became the oldest 38-, 39-, 40-year-old in the history of golf," says Brandel Chamblee, who nevertheless calls Tiger the greatest golfer to ever play. "You cannot name me another player in the history of the game that has sustained the injuries Tiger Woods has sustained. Then you add the cost of the technical change, the changes to his swing. And when you throw into the mix that he completely lost his short game, it is the trifecta, the perfect storm."
But what about 59-year-old Tom Watson, a survivor of the putting yips, nearly winning the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry? Or 54-year-old Greg Norman, star crossed in the majors, taking a lead into Sunday at Royal Birkdale the previous summer? Or 51-year-old Davis Love III winning at Greensboro last season, just 2 1/2 years after neck surgery? Can't Tiger – more accomplished than all three – find his way back to winning? Can't he have his Jack-in-1986-Masters moment, or even a few of them?
"If he comes back – and I hope he does because there is nothing like watching Tiger Woods play golf – it will be the greatest comeback story in the history of golf, and maybe sports, because no other athlete had risen so high and fallen so low," Chamblee says.
Love, though, doesn't see a comeback as farfetched, if Tiger's body will allow it. He sees a gifted player robbed of the reps required to compete at the highest level.
"If he comes out and plays, that means he's healthy, and if he can play a whole season, then he can get his game back," Love says. "I don't think you're going to do it playing once a month and then getting hurt again, like he's been doing for four years. You can't be sharp unless you play. It doesn't matter how good you've been in the past, you've got to play. You have to have confidence and you have to do it enough where you screw up some and build on it. He hasn't had a chance to build on anything for a long, long time. If his back gets good, if anybody can play for a long time, it's him because he is so strong."
Golf would be lucky to have Tiger grinding in his 40s because nobody generates the same electricity, even now.
But there are other sentiments, of course. Turn the page to the ascendant 20somethings. Leave him be, he's given enough. Be thankful we had the high because the game never had it so good, with the fate of Wall Street seeming to rise with every Tiger win, with golfers suddenly the kids at the cool table.
Tiger built the modern golf industry, fueling global commerce as a one-man stimulus package. Equipment, instruction, fashion, charity, architecture, media, all benefitted wildly from the Woods machine (to say nothing of skyrocketing Tour purses).
But that's why it is difficult to fathom that Tiger may have won his last major at 32, an age before Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson won their first. Tiger was supposed to rule the world for as long as he wanted.
"I'm pissed that he doesn't have 25 majors," says Rocco Mediate, the last man Tiger vanquished in a major,
We are brutal on our sports heroes, incredulous when they lose speed on their fastballs or lift on their jump shots or start showing nerves on and around the greens. Their frailties are reminders of our own.
To see Tiger in the Bahamas, moving slowly around a practice green with his peers, was a vision few could have predicted during the go-go years.
But if you looked closely enough during the Hero, you also saw a more relaxed Tiger, free from expectations, free from tee times and gym work, free to ride around in a golf cart with his children, dishing out love and discipline.
"He understands that part of his life, how fulfilling it is, the connection, what it means to the kids and your own self-being," Cook says.
Who is Tiger Woods at 40? What a big question. He's a legend hoping for a few more sunsets, sure, but also a single dad with a bad back and one heck of a story to tell.