LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tiger Woods gingerly limped up a hill to the 13th green Friday afternoon, an 8-foot birdie putt awaiting him. Here, even at 7 over for the tournament, even incapacitated by a lingering back injury, the gallery swelled around him, showering him with cheers.
These cries of support were different than years ago, when throaty outbursts longing for dominance would create a frenzied atmosphere. Instead, these were encouraging requests, like enthusiastic parents trying to boost a forlorn little league team.
As Woods strained to read the putt, the gallery grew silent. A lone voice pierced the humid late-afternoon air.
“Come on, Tiger!” it pleaded. “For old time’s sake!”
For old time’s sake! That could have been Woods’ rallying cry throughout the season, a rallying cry that was never answered.
Symbolic of everything that has gone wrong for him, he missed the birdie attempt.
After five more inconsequential holes, he shuffled toward the Valhalla clubhouse, still saddled with all of the doubt that shrouded his performance throughout the year, but now at least carrying some finality along with it.
This is where Woods’ season unceremoniously came to a close, whether he’ll admit it or not.
“I don’t know,” he answered three times during a brief five-minute interview session after a second straight 3-over 74 left him on the wrong side of the PGA Championship cut line.
In regard to when he’ll play again: “I don’t know.”
In regard to whether he came back too soon: “I don’t know.”
He won’t tee it up at next week’s Wyndham Championship and failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, which means the next time we see him is anybody’s guess. The Ryder Cup? He’d need a call from Watson. Something called Americas Golf Cup, a two-man event in Argentina in late October? Don’t laugh; he’s signed up. Not until next year, giving him time to rest his injuries? In the words of Woods, “I don’t know.”
What we do know is that this was the worst year of his career. Worse than the scandal-riddled season of 2010. Worse than its delayed aftermath of 2011.
Woods played a total of seven PGA Tour-sanctioned events, withdrawing twice, missing two cuts and finishing no better than 25th place. For a man who’s earned more than $100,000,000, he cashed a comparably paltry $108,275. That’s less than he’s made in 176 individual tournaments throughout his career.
Following his round on Friday, he fluctuated between speaking about the past and the future.
On the past - his miserable season, the months lost because of back surgery, the unsuccessful return – Woods was resigned to disappointment: “I tried as hard as I could … no doubt it was sore … just had to play through it … I'm not exactly a non‑stubborn person.”
On the future – his impending schedule, what he needs to do to get healthy, how this impacts him long-term – he painted an optimistic picture: “I need to get physically stronger … hoping as fast as I can … we'll see from there.”
Maybe not any of the supporters swelling his gallery on Friday afternoon, but some observers have proclaimed that Woods is done. They’ve already stated that at the age of 38, and wrought with injuries, he is not only done dominating but done winning.
Only time will prove those observers right or wrong, but there’s no denying this was a different Tiger who hobbled into the offseason and, yes, into the unknown.
Like all mortals – and Woods showed once again this year that, even in golf terms, he is indeed mortal – he is undergoing the eventual ravages of age. It happened to the most legendary legends of each generation in this game. It’s happened to every one of the seemingly ageless wonders who played other sports.
Woods understands that. Even while boasting long ago that he wanted to break Jack’s record and sail past Slammin’ Sam, he never considered himself immortal. He’s always known that a demise would happen at some point.
“I felt old a long time ago,” he said Friday when asked if this latest struggle made him feel old.
Those words offered a brief window of reflection, a quick bit of contemplation from a man who doesn’t often provide such insight.
As for the rest of the future, it all remains in doubt. His season is over, we know that much. But as far as the Ryder Cup and when he’ll play again and how he’ll return, Woods could only submit an honest appraisal of what’s to come.
“I don’t know.”