Here in the Age of the Hot Take – which is sort of like the Age of Enlightenment, only the opposite – everyone has an opinion. Not always a well-researched, highly contemplative opinion, mind you, but at the very least, a knee-jerk, need-it-now theory that gets thumbed out on social media accounts with the immediacy of a 911 call.
By its very nature, golf isn’t much of a knee-jerk, need-it-now type of game. You can’t rush to judgment in an arena where some players don’t peak until their mid-30s – or, hell, where some don’t stop contending for major championships until they’re 59. And so in many respects, opinions on the world’s best golfers represent the peculiar intersection of old-world eventuality and new-world urgency, an intersection with green lights in every direction, prompting massive wrecks before anyone bothers to look both ways.
Enter Tiger Woods.
Even in today’s society, golf still has some of those old-world charms. Rookies aren’t as heavily scrutinized as their counterparts in other sports; those who fail to reach predicted lofty heights aren’t dealt such severe blows of criticism. Then there’s Tiger, whose every movement – from agile and clinical to stiff and dispirited – gets treated with the importance of such grave topics as global politics and SEC football recruiting.
During the 11-and-a-half holes that he played at Torrey Pines’ North Course on Thursday afternoon, he was treated to the same reflex discourse that’s been following his performances for the past half-decade. He skulled a chip and the masses cried, “He’s done!” He holed a chip shot and they declared, “He’s back!” He left the course grimacing in pain and they about-faced, “He’s done!” Not that he knows – or even cares. Why should he? Leave the rhetoric to those who for years haven’t even tried to activate their glutes.
That’s not to impugn just the public, either. The media is just as at fault for the snap decisions regarding Tiger’s swing and his health and his mental state and just about every other aspect of his game that we think could be affecting him. Our guesses might be more educated, but they’re still merely guesses. And the law of supply and demand – the public keeps demanding more coverage, so we keep supplying it – requires the never-ending critical analysis of Tiger to be treated with not only importance but immediacy.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Last week, I watched Tiger compress a bunch of practice-round drives into the desert sky, saw a relaxed smile plastered across his face, watched him move easily and effortlessly, listened to him insist, “This is going to be a fun year,” and came to the conclusion that he was right. It was going to be a fun year. Instead of another 12 months spent dissecting his injuries and deconstructing his swing, this was going to be a year where we sat back and enjoyed the ride, watching one of the all-time masters perform his craft at a delightfully high rate. This was going to be a year where he was compelling for all the right reasons again, fascinating and captivating for his successes rather than his shortcomings.
Then he shot an opening-round 73 during which he looked completely lost around the greens and followed with a second-round 82 that made the 73 seem brilliant by comparison. He then followed that by withdrawing from Torrey after a cluster of cringe-inducing shots – both for him and for those watching – and it felt like last week’s glass half-full had not only tipped over and spilled, but smashed into a thousand tiny pieces on a linoleum floor.
Yeah, that’s right – scalding hot-take alert – after watching the attempted start to his year these last two weeks, I’ve now quietly tiptoed away from the “He’s back!” camp and set up shop in the “He’s done!” quarters, with the caveat that I can return to the original spot at a moment’s notice. There are those who steadfastly planted roots on one side of the fence long ago, never shifting hypotheses – and they are to be commended, if not for their persistence, then at least for their stubbornness. But not me. I’m a vacillator of epic proportions.
But isn’t that alright? Isn’t that why we watch? Isn’t that why we passionately yell at our television screens, only to keep coming back for more? If we knew the end results, that would take all the fun out of it. That would deprive us of the ceaseless debates that can envelop any 19th hole in a hurry. It would strip us of the edge-of-our-seat excitement of a Sunday afternoon heading down the back stretch. It would rob us of any reason to care.
And so we watch and, for some of us, we maintain an open mind – and we change our open mind based on the current temperature of the situation.
When it comes to Tiger – when he’s relaxed and smiling and hitting fairways and confident – it’s perfectly acceptable to remember the glory days and imagine he’s on the verge of returning to the dominant force who once roamed atop leaderboards. And then there are times like his first two starts – when he’s confused and injured and looks like an expeditiously aging version of his former self – when it’s impossible to envision any such return.
He’s 39 now, which is clearly the back-nine of any golfer’s career, but especially one who’s been diligently digging secrets out of the dirt since he could walk. Couple that with a body that can no longer withstand an hour-long fog delay, let alone the rigors of 72 holes, plus a metamorphic swing that is undergoing its fourth or fifth mutation, and it’s easy to foresee a future where he never regains status as one of the world’s best golfers. Forget about passing Jack Nicklaus on the all-time major championship list, he might not get the four PGA Tour wins needed to eclipse Sam Snead’s record.
At least, that’s how it looks today, right on the heels of that third withdrawal in his last eight starts. But at some point, perhaps at Augusta National, nestled amongst the loblolly pines and blooming azaleas, he’ll hit a towering approach shot into one of the course’s contoured greens that takes a slight 3-yard cut and softly lands just a few feet from the hole. And we’ll start to think, maybe this guy isn’t done after all. Maybe there’s still time to relive some of those old glory days.
That’s alright. We’re not supposed to know what the future holds. That’s what makes all of this – the debates, the conjecture, the never-ending critical analysis – such a passionate pursuit. That’s what makes us care.