LOS ANGELES – There’s been a lot of talk recently about legacies and statuses, about GOATs and their futures.
LeBron James, 38, broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Tom Brady, 45, retired following an unparalleled NFL career. And Patrick Mahomes, 27, cemented his claim as Brady’s heir apparent, claiming a second MVP and Super Bowl title in his first six seasons.
Golf has its own living legend, too – no less than 1B in any GOAT debate – and he’s back in action this week after being a late addition to the field at his Genesis Invitational.
This is Tiger Woods’ first non-major start since fall 2020, and it’s certainly possible that it could be among his last. Max Homa said we’re “privileged” every time Woods tees it up these days. Jon Rahm said it’s “incredible he keeps trying.” Woods, 47, himself is the first to admit that he’s nearing the end. But he’s here right now, competing, and in the moment that’s all that matters.
Unlike in previous years, there was no breathless anticipation as the tournament commitment deadline approached. Sure, Woods had other motivations for playing at Riviera – namely, the designated Tour event benefits his foundation – but the ultimate decision was actually quite simple. His plantar fasciitis had calmed down. He had progressed with his health and felt pretty good, all things considered. He was shooting low scores at home, while zipping around in a cart. And so: Why not?
Full-field tee times from The Genesis Invitational
“I would not have put myself out here if I didn’t think I could beat these guys and win the event,” he said. “That’s my mentality.”
That’s what Woods has preached for more than a quarter-century, and it’s an attitude no doubt shared by other superstar athletes.
It’s why Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion, retired for 40 days last year, only to be pulled back into the locker room because of the gnawing feeling that there still was unfinished business. Even in a down year, Brady led the league in passing and guided an injury-ravaged Buccaneers team to the playoffs. The extra year may have cost him his marriage, but it also quenched that competitive zest. Satisfied, this time, he said, he was retiring, “for good,” with nothing left to prove and nothing left to give. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is weighing a similar decision, whenever he emerges from his darkness retreat.
Brady was the ultimate football outlier, still slinging it at 45, more than two decades after he entered the league of the most violent sport in America. Woods has always been this sport’s anomaly, too – first as the youngest player on Tour, then as an overwhelming force, and now as the uber-famous elder statesman. Much as the NFL has become Mahomes’ league, the Tour is now the domain of Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler and Rahm. Pro golf has never been younger, or deeper, and Woods is trying to play only the biggest events on the toughest setups with a creaky body that feels different each morning.
So, why try?
After all, like Brady, Woods’ legacy has long been secure. He hasn’t been fueled by doubters for years. He could have walked away after back fusion surgery in 2017. He could have walked away after his magical run at the 2019 Masters. He could have walked away after his horrifying accident in February 2021.
Woods recalled watching John Elway’s emotional goodbye to football after back-to-back Super Bowl titles with the Broncos in the late-’90s. “He could just not physically do it anymore,” said Woods, and over the last few years, he, too, had begun to realize his own golfing mortality: “I’ve gotten to that point a couple of times where you think about it.”
And yet, Woods continued to push forward. Even through scandals. Even through unimaginable physical pain. Even through lengthy rehabs and frustrating setbacks.
“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s within me and whether or not I believe I can do it.”
Adjustments needed to be made, of course. He doesn’t – and can’t – practice like he used to. He’ll never again play a full Tour schedule. A few years ago, with his back flaring up, he played away from certain shots that would cause a jolt of back pain – not unlike a quarterback who sees ghosts in the pocket, or an aging wide receiver who thinks twice before crossing over the middle. It was a small concession. An act of preservation.
Brady defied the odds by playing for as long as he did, a product of both his maniacal health and fitness regimen as well as rule changes that helped protect the quarterback. Golf supposedly offers a longer shelf life than other contact sports, but Woods has put that theory to the test, undergoing roughly as many surgeries as he has won majors, even without 300-pounders trying to pancake him. He literally laughed at the thought of playing 50-plus Masters, like Arnold Palmer or Gary Player.
“When you get a little bit older and you get a little more banged up, you’re not as invincible as you once were,” he said. “That’s a reality of all of us just aging.”
What Woods has yet to accept, however, is that he’s past his expiration date, that he’s not still capable of summoning another moment or two of greatness. It’s what drove Brady back for another year. It’s what could drive Rodgers back to the Packers, or another team. And it’s what continues to drive Woods back out on Tour, even as his health concerns mount, even as the odds grow longer.
“If I’m playing,” he said, “I’m playing to win. I know players and they are ambassadors of the game and try to grow the game – but I can’t wrap my mind around that as a competitor. If I’m playing in the event, I’m going to try and beat you. I’m there to get a W, OK?
“There will come a point in time when my body will not allow me to do that anymore, and it’s probably sooner rather than later. But wrapping my head around that transition and being the ambassador role and just trying to be out here with the guys – no, that’s not in my DNA.”
Turns out, that’s the shared trait among GOATs.