Tiger at 40: Where does Tiger go from here?


(Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 17)

COVERING THE WALLS of Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe, Pa., office is a vivid history of the King’s career: letters from presidents, scorecards, snapshots with celebrities. Tucked into a dark corridor almost as an afterthought is the Sept. 1, 1969, issue of Sports Illustrated.

It was the 11th time Palmer’s familiar face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated but unlike the other occasions this time was riddled with mixed messages. The headline said it all: “Farewell to an era: Arnold Palmer turns 40.”

Palmer, who turned 40 on Sept. 10th of that year, was winding down his 15th season on the PGA Tour and his first, at least to that point, without a victory.

The implications of the headline, and the accompanying story, were clear – one of the game’s most charismatic and compelling players was nearing the end of his career. It was a message Palmer begrudgingly understood but didn’t like.

Asked recently if the SI cover inspired him to prove he still had the game to compete, Palmer flashed his familiar smile and left no room for ambiguity: “Absolutely.”

Palmer would win twice before the end of the 1969 season and add six more titles to his resume before slipping gracefully into his golden years.

Tiger at 40

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Dec. 17: Tiger's future in his 40s

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In many ways, Palmer admitted, that SI cover and the general sense of finality that surrounded his 40th birthday motivated him, gave him something to prove despite a career that already ranked among the game’s best. Tiger Woods will face a similar situation later this month when he turns 40, a milestone that has been met with a mixture of skepticism and sentimentality.

Earlier this month at his own Hero World Challenge, even Woods seemed willing to accept the reality that time and too many trips to the surgeon’s table had caught up with him.

“I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy,” Woods said. “For my 20 years out here I think I've achieved a lot, and if that's all it entails, then I've had a pretty good run. But I'm hoping that's not it. I'm hoping that I can get back out here and compete against these guys.”

If that doesn’t exactly sound like a competitor who, as poet Dylan Thomas once penned, plans to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” know that Woods has come by this new measured perspective honestly.

He underwent microdiscectomy surgery in March 2014 and missed nearly four months on Tour while he recovered. When he returned to competition in 2015, he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open when his glutes wouldn’t "activate," and he had a second microdiscectomy in September after missing the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive year.

There was a third “follow-up procedure” in October, although the details of this surgery remain unknown, and when he resurfaced to host the World Challenge he said his golf activity had been limited to nothing more than walking.

“There is no timetable. So that's the hardest part, that's the hardest part for me is there's really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards,” Woods said. “It's just taking it literally just day by day and week by week and time by time.”

IT'S IN THAT CONTEXT that Woods’ 40th birthday has become a much more nuanced milestone. While there is no shortage of players who enjoyed success well into their 40s, few if any began the final decade of their careers with so many unanswered questions.

Whatever comes next for Woods depends entirely on how his back responds to three surgeries in two years, but there is a litany of examples of players who were competitive at the highest levels well into their fourth decade.

Mark O’Meara, one of Woods’ earliest confidants and a neighbor when the two lived in the Central Florida enclave Isleworth, turned 40 shortly after Woods turned pro in 1996.

In a cosmic twist of time, it was Woods’ early success, particularly at the 1997 Masters, that prompted O’Meara, who turned 40 in January of ’97, to work harder when many of his contemporaries were easing quietly into their pre-Champions Tour years.

“He motivated me a ton. I probably wouldn’t have won those two majors had he not come into my life,” said O’Meara, who won four times in his 40s including the 1998 Masters and Open Championship.

John Cook was also part of that Isleworth crew that converged just as he was entering his 40s, a milestone that is often complicated by competing interests outside of golf that can dull one’s competitive edge.

“Being around Tiger and being around Charles Howell kind of kept Mark [O’Meara] and I young,” said Cook, who won on Tour twice in his 40s. “We just watched the greatest player, it kept us motivated. It kept us wanting to play.”

Where Woods will find his will to move forward is, like his current medical diagnoses, something of a mystery.

For the better part of two decades the finish line has always been Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, the last of which came at Augusta National when the Golden Bear was 46.

“He’s still got his eye on the prize. It’s the record. He’s said it ever since he was a kid - he wants that record,” Cook said. “I don’t think he’s satisfied with the last four or five years. The year he had [2013] was really good, but no majors. That’s what’s it’s all about.”

But that Jack-or-bust mentality has been somewhat softened in recent years. Former swing coach Hank Haney said this year on Sirius XM PGA Tour radio that catching Nicklaus was never Woods’ primary goal.

Earlier this month at the World Challenge, Woods talked about eclipsing Nicklaus on the all-time Tour wins list, with only a passing reference to the game’s ultimate litmus test for greatness – 18 major championships.

Perhaps Woods’ current medical plight has prompted him to reassess what’s possible. Perhaps he was never zeroed in on Nicklaus’ record – although at this point it does seem like a revisionist spin on diminishing returns. Either way, Tiger’s mind, if not his body, doesn’t appear to be entirely at ease with the idea that his time may have passed.

“I really do miss it. I miss being out here with the boys and mixing it up with them and see who can win the event. That's fun,” Woods said.

If a paradigm of hope is what Woods needs, there is no shortage of examples he can pull from. In his last start of 2015 – the Wyndham Championship, an 11th-hour addition to his schedule to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs – he lost to 51-year-old Davis Love III.

Love and Woods have grown closer since the creation of last year’s U.S. Ryder Cup task force and Love has become something of a voice of reason when it comes to Woods’ future.

“If he just plays, you know he’s going to get better,” Love said. “Give him from the first of February to the end of the FedEx Cup [Playoffs], where he’s healthy, 16 tournaments, he’ll play really well.”

It’s become the ultimate qualifier – if he’s healthy.

For the most part, Nicklaus didn’t deal with the assortment of injuries that Woods has, but his record in his 40s, when he won five times, including three of those 18 majors, should give Tiger a reason to be optimistic.

Or, he could look to Phil Mickelson, his primary rival throughout much of his career who added four Tour titles to his resume since turning 40 in 2010, most notably the 2013 Open Championship which set up a late-in-career bid to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open.

“I'm 45. I still love golf and appreciate the fact that I'm able to play at the highest level and do what I love to do,” Mickelson said in June. “Some people don't want to do it that long, and I understand. It's each individual's own preference.”

OF COURSE, THE ULTIMATE arbiter of success past 40 would be Vijay Singh, who collected 22 of his 34 Tour titles in his fourth decade, including the 2004 PGA Championship.

Singh, who at 52 finished inside the top 125 on the FedEx Cup points list last season and has shown no signs of taking his game permanently to the greener pastures of the Champions Tour, had a singular motivation when he turned 40: “I just wanted to win,” he said.

But even in Singh there is a cautionary tale as Woods plots his course into the next decade. While the Fijian blazed a new trail for 40-somethings there was a physical toll. He averaged more than 25 events on Tour after turning 40 – a number Woods didn’t approach even before he was sidelined with an assortment of injuries – and was ultimately slowed, like Tiger, by injury.

“I was in good physical shape, until I got my knee done. For some reason it was all over then,” said Singh, who underwent right-knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in January 2008 and hasn’t won since. “It went to my back ... it was just downhill from there.

For Woods, the optimism that was there just two years ago after he’d won five Tour events and his 11th Player of the Year Award has faded, replaced by uncertainty.

Most agree the best player of his generation, perhaps of all time, has the talent to make 40 the new 30, but the questions remain. Even if Woods’ health returns, he must still find the competitive spark that drove him to hone his trade through endless hours of practice and preparation.

“Only he knows what he wants to do deep down inside," O'Meara said. "Turning 40, with the life he has led and the pressure and the scrutiny he’s lived under, there’s not that many human beings who have experienced what he has. At the end of the day we’re still human beings, and human beings can only take so much.

“It’s going to be difficult to get back to that level that he once was, but who knows? Sometimes when you least expect it with him, when you underestimate his desire and ability, he comes roaring back.”

Palmer found his post-40 drive in that Sports Illustrated cover, a desire to prove those who would second-guess his future wrong, and it’s certainly a form of motivation Woods is familiar with as the crescendo of doubt has grown the closer he gets to his 40th birthday on Dec. 30.

But as Palmer eyed that fateful cover from 1969, the conversation turned to Woods and his impending birthday. The signature smile vanished, replaced by the slightest hint of sadness.

“I’m afraid some of my thoughts about Tiger and his life and his future might be different. There are things that would be unfair, to him, for me to say,” Palmer said. “He has an opportunity and a talent that is something he should value more than he does.”