How will Tiger know when it's over?


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Golfers don’t retire so much as they simply fade from view. They cut down their schedules. Limit their appearances. Spend more time with their families. Usually, it’s a peaceful transition.

But this latest Tiger Woods comeback has been anything but smooth. Each return goes through the same four phases – despair, optimism, anticipation, frustration – only to end with a familiar outcome: Woods on the sidelines, and plenty of questions about his immediate future.

The current and former athletes here at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am can relate to this endless cycle. They’ve asked themselves the same questions, confronting retirement both publicly and privately. They’ve been stuck in competitive limbo. And then, after months of soul-searching, they reach a decision, either forging ahead or biding farewell.

Sometimes, the decision is made for them. It’s possible that, at 39, Peyton Manning wouldn’t have been cleared to play another NFL season, with doubts over his surgically repaired neck and nerve damage in his throwing arm. And why would he return anyway? It was a storybook ending, Manning retiring after 18 seasons and another Super Bowl title.

“It’s never an easy decision when you put a lot into something,” he said Friday. “One thing I always took a lot of pride in was having good timing as a quarterback, good timing with my receiver. It felt like it was the right time for me.

“It might have been the right time no matter how it ended up, but it certainly made it sweet, being able to go out winning your last game.”

But it’s exceedingly rare for stars to exit on top – and it never happens in golf – so athletes are often left to face their own professional mortality with diminishing skills.

Former American tennis star Andy Roddick retired at the 2012 U.S. Open, at age 30, after plummeting in the rankings and dealing with a series of injuries. It wasn’t a bombshell; Roddick was no longer an elite player. The surprise was that he conceded as much, a phase that Woods has not yet reached: Acceptance. 

“With the way my body feels, with the way that I’m able to feel like I’m able to compete now, I don’t know that it’s good enough,” Roddick said then. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone who’s interested in ‘existing’ on tour.”

Woods never has expressed an interest in that, either. He’s never said that he’s content to sit outside the top 600 in the world rankings, to miss the top events and to become an afterthought, sometimes even a sideshow, at majors. But that’s only one aspect. Regardless of how his body holds up, Woods will always face an uphill battle against today’s best players, who are younger, bigger, stronger, faster – better in every facet of the game.

That’s not necessarily the case with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is still one of the NFL’s best receivers, leading the league in catches last season. But for months he was non-committal about his future plans, saying that he’d revisit the topic in the offseason. It took him a few weeks to decide, but Fitzgerald announced earlier this week that he’d return for his 14th NFL season.

Like Woods, Fitzgerald has dealt with nagging injuries and admitted that he’ll never again be 100 percent healthy. It’s the cost of a long career. But unlike Woods, who is still an entire Phil Mickelson career from surpassing Jack Nicklaus on the major mountaintop, there is plenty of incentive for Fitzgerald, 33, to keep going, to play the final year of his contract – with another 1,000-yard season, he can move up to third on the list of all-time NFL receiving leaders. Woods’ place, meanwhile, is virtually secure. 

“My fire and desire to win and compete versus the best still burns,” Fitzgerald said this week.

It stands to reason that Woods’ fire still burns, as well, or he wouldn’t subject himself to the public humiliation of aborted comebacks and missed cuts and rounds in the 80s. But the past few years have required significant introspection.

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Kelly Slater has reached a similar crossroads. His dominant surfing career is winding down, too. He has captured 55 career titles, and a record 11 world championships, but the 45-year-old has been off his game for the past couple of years, looking increasingly vulnerable in heats.

“If you’re just wanting to be there and make up some numbers, that’s one thing, but if you’re trying to win and be the No. 1 guy, you have to be honest with where your levels are at,” Slater said Friday. “That’s kind of where I’m coming from. If I can put in a full healthy year with the right desire and I can’t win a world title, if that’s out of my grasp, then it’s time to retire. I don’t think I’m there yet. But I think that’s what the conversation is for me.”

Slater, like Woods, has been inspired and motivated by the next generation. Surfers like John John Florence, last year’s world champion, have raised the bar for everyone. “I looked at that,” Slater said, “and I said to myself, ‘Man, I remember what that feels like. I want to put that back together again.’” And so he recommitted to his craft and summoned an epic performance, beating Florence with a near-perfect score last August in Tahiti. Afterward, he described it as “one of the best wins I’ve ever had.” Woods, of course, is chasing the same feeling.

“With Tiger, he set such a high bar for himself for so long, I think it would be sad for him to not be competitive,” Slater said. “If there’s some physical, mental, emotional or spiritual problems that he’s having that’s blocking him, that could be a reality, too. You can’t shake that until you do. Only he knows if that’s part of it. But I can’t help but think that it is.” 

Woods has always said that he craves the competition, that during these injury-plagued years he has missed “mixing it up with the boys.” Now that he’s at the tail end of his career, however, Slater feels the opposite.

“If I got injured and never surfed again, that’s the only thing I’d worry about,” Slater said. “I don’t worry about filling up my life some way. These days, I’m probably happier to go surfing than to compete. I’m trying to keep that fire and the competitiveness burning for an extended period of time. But there’s nothing more I’d like to do than fly halfway around the world and get a good wave.”

What would Woods’ post-golf life look like? He’s already offered a glimpse. Last fall, he launched the second chapter of his career – his new brand TGR, which combines all of his various businesses, including tournament management and golf-course design. He’d also be heavily involved in team competitions each year.

Maybe Woods will be different – perhaps he could retire, but not fade from view.

If he has reached that final phase, only Woods knows for sure.