Tiger Woods believes a new life can begin for him as he hits 40
With the world writing him off as a golfing force, a supposedly despondent Tiger Woods celebrates his 40th birthday today seemingly determined to drag every positive he can from that “life begins at …” cliché.
However, it is fair to say that his family and friends will not be giving the 14-time major winner the bumps; not after the three back operations in the past two years that means he struggles to walk never mind be a professional sportsman. Yet neither will there be the doom and gloom which greeted his remarkable press conference this month, where for the first time he admitted that he has reconciled himself with the possibility that his career may be over.
The group congregated in his Florida mansion will know Woods rather better than those stunned journalists in that media centre at his charity’s tournament, the Hero World Challenge, and would not have been in the least bit surprised by the contents of his New Year message. On his website, Woods declares that he is not only hopeful of playing this year and of qualifying for the US Ryder Cup team, which will be desperate to win at Hazeltine in September, but of actually being among the elite in a decade’s time. “The thing I’m looking forward to most about 2016 is getting back out there again. I’ve missed it, and I would like to do it pain-free,” Woods wrote.
“I haven’t done that in what seems like a long time. I’ve had it in spurts the last few years and have done some pretty good things, but I’d like to have sustained health. Hopefully, I’ll be able to play my way onto the Ryder Cup team. Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years? I am still playing golf at the highest level and winning tournaments and major championships.”
This echoed the defiance he showed to a couple of reporters later that week in the Bahamas when they asked him if he really believed this was it. “Come on, I’m not retired. I’m not done yet,” Woods told them. “I know there will be a time when I will get to rehab, get to start working out again and I’ll do everything I can to get back out here. It’s going to be tough to get back. You know I’m not patient. And it’s so different this time. To get better I can’t do anything. That’s never been the case in the past.”
But as he waits for the spine to recover – naturally, this time as he has promised there will be “no more procedures” – what Woods can do is immerse himself in his family life like he never has before, and although the cynics will doubtless sneer at the notion of the Great Philanderer turning into Superdad as he enters middle age, an anecdote from the Hero World Challenge shines some light on his new self. USA Today reported that, as they accompanied their fathers up the fairways, his two children, Sam, 8, and Charley, 6, were asked by a family friend whether they would rather be Lionel Messi or Tiger Woods. Both replied “Messi” and when pressed for a reason, Charley responded: “He’s still playing.”
Woods apparently thought the episode hilarious and spoke of his overwhelming priority in his latest rehabilitation. “The kids are so into soccer, and they always want to play, and I can’t do that,” Woods said. “I have to be the best cheerleader I can possibly be. But still, it’s nothing like interacting with my kids and being a part of their lives and being out there with them. I just hope I can do that soon. If I can get to that, then we can start talking about golf.”
However, with Woods it never has been merely about the golf – or talking about it. More than any sportsman before, he has always been required to be more than a golfer. When his late father, Earl, was telling anyone who would listen that the boy would become a prolific winner of majors he also predicted he would be “bigger than Gandhi”.
In terms of headlines, Earl was probably not wrong. But so many were to prove negative, especially after the sex scandal of 2009 which transformed respect into ridicule. In the past six years he has inevitably discovered who his real friends are. One of them is Davis Love, the Ryder Cup captain who has invited Woods to be an assistant captain, should the 441st-ranked golfer in the world obey reality and not make it as a player.
“Greg Norman was like: ‘I’m not going to talk to you because I’m trying to beat you.’ I think Tiger thought that was the way to do it for a while,” Love told the Golf Channel. “Now he realises, it doesn’t have to be like that. I think he understands that he’s got friends that he can trust. There are people who don’t care about his golf. I don’t need anything from Tiger Woods. I don’t want anything from Tiger Woods. I just want to be his friend.” Those close to him feel that Woods has been reinvented. His ex-wife Elin is, Woods claims, “one of my best friends” and, like everyone in his circle, now extols him as a good father. But if there has been some inner peace found, then there can be little doubt that this is still a complex, confused individual. “My friends keep asking me how it feels to be turning 40 at the end of the month and my response is, ‘It depends when you ask me,’ ” Woods said.
“Mentally, people who know me know I’m like a five-year-old. Physically, sometimes I feel old and sometimes I feel like a teenager. I don’t like the polar opposites of the two. I’d like to be somewhere in the middle where I feel 40.”
If he can feel like a proper, fit 40-year-old then the history of golf shows that his career does not have to be over. Woods evidently still wants to compete, but has allowed himself the privilege of looking back. In 20 years, he redefined his sport, broke down some of its barriers and brought so much pleasure and awe to so many. It is intriguing to read what he judges to have been his finest achievements.
“Number one, you have to go back to my first major win, which was the Masters in 1997. How I did it, winning by 12 strokes, was so special. And then winning four in a row and owning the Grand Slam, something no professional golfer has ever done. Third would probably be my 142-consecutive cuts-made streak. Consistency for a long period of time ... there’s a lot that goes into that. You have bad days, you have bad weeks, but to battle and endure and suck it up and get it done – I’m very proud of that one.” Just as he should be and just as golf still should be proud of its superstar; and be wishing him well on this day more than perhaps any other.