Yesterday, Tiger Woods withdrew from The Players Championship after nine pathetic holes. Woods shot a front nine 42 before citing numerous leg maladies as the reasons for his withdrawal.
By itself, Tiger’s TPC failure is not a huge deal. The tournament is not a Major, nor did many people expect Tiger to compete anyway. He had barely swung a club since Sunday at Augusta.
In context, however, what happened yesterday just might have transformed a murmuring minority into a critical mass of doubters. It also might have signaled a shift in how we view the career of Tiger Woods moving forward and how we’ll someday view it looking back.
As I have spent some time this morning considering Tiger’s overall career, his recent struggles, and his potential for a return to form, there is one name, one memory that I keep coming back to.
Tiger Woods was once Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Jack Nicklaus all rolled into one. Now, in the wake of yet another lost weekend, Tiger seems like none of those sports icons. Rather, he seems like another still iconic but much more tragic figure:
What Could Have and Should Have Been: The Babe, MJ, Jack, and Tiger
Ever since Tiger burst onto the scene, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Majors has seemed inevitable. Now, in the wake of Tiger’s infamous scandal, and with each new injury report, and with each successive weekend sans victory, the whispers of his permanent demise have become fully voiced discussion. As a result, Tiger’s once secure spot in not just golf but sports history — at the top, the very top — no longer seems so secure.
Like the Babe, Tiger totally dominated, transformed, and lorded over his sport during his prime with never-before-seen power. And like MJ, Tiger’s focus and competitive drive were seen as other-worldly and essential in his daily pursuit of winning, which he did…often. No one hit the ball harder or won more than Tiger Woods. Not even Jack, at least not during his first decade on tour.
Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Jack Nicklaus would be on any Mount Rushmore of American sports, and Tiger Woods combined the best of all three.
Combined. Past tense.
Unfortunately for fans of Tiger Woods, or just fans of transcendent greatness in general, this is where the narrative begins to limp in another direction.
You see, Jack, the Babe, and MJ left no unfinished business.
Jack, when he won Major #18 at age 46, ensured that no one could ever accuse him of leaving any unfinished business. And sure, Babe Ruth could have taken better care of himself and perhaps hit a few more home runs. And who knows if the Bulls would have won eight or nine straight titles had Michael never taken his baseball sabbatical in the wake of his first 3-peat and his father’s death (and perhaps other…things). But to a certain extent, and rightfully so I believe, we all view the Babe’s larger-than-life style and off-field excess, and Michael’s time away from the game, as being essential in the overall narrative of their greatness relative to their eras.
However, ignominious sex scandals, public divorces involving children, and debilitating knee injuries, cannot be considered by anyone to be essential in any narrative of greatness. Yet that is the direction in which the Legend of Tiger Woods has been careening over the last 18 or so months.
As a result, the similarities between Tiger’s career arc and the legendary but ultimately unfulfilling career of Mickey Mantle are becoming more and more striking by the year.
What Probably Will Be: The Mick and Eldrick
Tiger Woods‘ golfing greatness has certainly been a product of prodigious natural talent, but the influence of his tough, no-nonsense father Earl cannot be understated, nor can Tiger’s love and respect for his father be understated. Similarly, Mickey Mantle is among the most talented athletes ever to pick up a baseball bat, and he drew much of his love, desire, and focus for the game from his father. Both Tiger and Mickey lost their fathers early; Earl Woods died once Tiger’s golfing dominance had been established, while Mutt Mantle died at age 39 as Mickey was just getting started.
Tiger Woods became a professional at age 20 after dominating amateur golf. He would go on to become the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Mickey Mantle made his MLB debut in 1951 at age 19 after being referred to by a Yankees scout, at age 16, as the best prospect that scout had ever seen.
Tiger Woods won his first Major, the Masters, in 1997, during his second year as a professional. He also won his first PGA Tour Player of the Year Award that year. Mickey Mantle made his first All Star team in 1952, his second year as a professional, and also led the Yankees to a World Series title that year.
The Transcendent Middle
Tiger Woods’ best stretch as a professional spanned the 2000 and 2001 seasons when he was 24 and, for a short time, 25 years old. This is when he completed the “Tiger Slam” by holding all four Major Championships concurrently. Mickey Mantle’s best season came as a 24-year old in 1956 when he hit 52 home runs, drove in 130 runs (his career high), and had a ridiculous slash line of .353/.705/1.169. He was named MVP, won the Triple Crown, and led the Yankees to a World Series title.
Needless to say, when Woods and Mantle were both 24, their potential for achievement seemed limitless.
They were the best players in their respective sports and the most powerful players in their sports. They even both took aim at the most hallowed records their sports had to offer. Tiger was chasing Jack from the very beginning, and Mickey twice took aim at the Babe’s single season home run record. Some even thought he could challenge the career mark if he could stay healthy.
Mickey Mantle became my dad’s favorite baseball player just like Tiger Woods became my favorite golfer. My dad expected greatness out of The Mick every time he saw him on TV or traveled with his dad to see Yankee road games. I expected greatness of Tiger every time I flipped on the TV during the weekend to watch a golf tournament.
The sport of baseball had seen few players with the overall skill package possessed by Mickey Mantle, and he was immensely popular and always winning by virtue of his talent and playing with the Yankees. Golf had never seen anyone with the skills of Tiger Woods, and he was immensely popular and always winning by virtue of being, for a decade, the golfing equivalent of the Yankees.
While both would continue to dominate their sports for many years, they would never be quite as dominant ever again as they were at 24. And really, how could they be? It is not hyperbole to say that Tiger Woods and Mickey Mantle were, at age 24, two of the greatest practitioners of a sport…ever.
After his Tiger Slam was complete at age 25, Tiger won ten more Majors before his 31st birthday. He was also named PGA Tour Player of the Year every year but one (2004). Mantle would win two more MVP awards at ages 25 and 30, and he finished second two other times in between while leading the Yankees to three more World Series titles.
The Disappointing Decline
It was after turning 31, when both men still should have had at least a few years of their prime remaining, that the performance of each began taking a drastic turn for the worse, with off-field distractions and injury concerns playing roles in the struggles of each.
Tiger’s off-field distractions need no expatiation. You know them, I know them, and they will always be part of the story of Tiger Woods. Similarly, Mantle’s womanizing and his struggle with alcohol are part his story, though unlike Woods he did not have to deal with being exposed while playing to the extent that Woods was exposed.
There is no way to tell how much the off-field stuff has hampered Woods on the course or how much it hampered Mantle on the field, so I will not dwell on it any longer. But it is part of the story for both, and it leaves legitimate cause for wonder about how much greater their careers could have been otherwise.
We do know though, with certainly, that injuries have severely hindered the recent performance of Woods, and we know that they diminished the late career performance of Mantle.
In fact, Mantle dealt with injuries his entire life and career, beginning with a crippling leg infection when he was a young boy. He also tore his knee up (perhaps even tearing his ACL, though no one knows for sure) as a 19-year old in the World Series, which began his career of knee troubles. Woods’ injury concerns did not become an issue until later in his career, but as with Mantle, they are showing no signs of easing up as he ages.
Despite injury, Tiger Woods went on to win the 2007 PGA Championship and, famously, the 2008 U.S. Open on a shredded knee. He has not won a Major since that U.S. Open at age 32. Mantle had one more great season after turning 31. It was 1964, when he was 32, and he finished second in the MVP voting.
Since turning 32, Tiger has had one more successful season on tour. In 2009 he did not win a Major but was named PGA Tour Player of the Year. Now age 35, Tiger has seen concerns over his knee mount and his decade-long grip on the #1 ranking in the world slip through his fingers.
Mickey Mantle played only four more seasons after his strong year at age 32, but he never finished higher than 19th in the MVP voting. At age 35, Mantle was moved to 1st base to finish out his career. He logged over 1,000 plate appearances his final two years but was a shell of himself. He hit 40 home runs total during those final two years, and in neither season did he bat over .245 or slug higher than .434.
We do not know yet what Tiger will do at age 36, or how long he will play after that, but his withdrawal this weekend is a new low in a two-year span that has seen plenty of unexpected and unprecedented lows for one of the most dominant athletes of my lifetime.
The Uncertain Future
The comparisons with Mantle must stop here because Mantle’s career was essentially over by the age Tiger is just now reaching. Golfers obviously can have longer careers than baseball players, and no one can say with certainty that Tiger is done winning, but the signs seem to get more ominous by the weekend.
What was once inevitable — 19 or more Majors won by Tiger — now seems like a pipe dream. Health, focus, and confidence were three things we used to be able to count on from Tiger week in and week out. Now we cannot really count on any, and it leaves us all wondering, legitimately, whether Tiger at age 36 and beyond will be nothing more than what Mickey was at age 36 and beyond:
No, Tiger won’t be literally done for a long while. He’ll certainly keep rehabbing his knee, retooling his swing, and recharging himself for the only four weekends of every year that really matter to him. And perhaps he’ll start winning again. And perhaps he’ll have the good fortune to get and stay healthy long enough to make one final legitimate run at the record he’s been chasing all his life.
Yes, perhaps this is where the similarities between Tiger’s career and Number Seven’s will cease. Mickey couldn’t overcome bad health and bad habits to have a late career renaissance. Maybe Tiger can. Before this weekend I always believed that he would. But now I’m not so sure, and I bet neither are you.
Maybe now is the time when we readjust our expectations. Maybe now is the time we begin to realize and accept that the guys we’ve always compared Tiger to will not prove to be Tiger’s greatest sports comparables. Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, as mentioned above, left no unfinished business. Neither did Jack Nicklaus, who fulfilled every ounce of his vast potential for greatness while setting the bar for all golfers.
Tiger Woods, however, now seems destined to fall short of fulfilling his potential. And if he does, his career will ultimately go down as having been much more like that of the The Commerce Comet than the Babe, his Airness, or the Golden Bear.