CHAMPIONS
Tiger at 40: Looking Back and Looking Ahead December 29, 2015 | Far Hills, N.J. By Bill Fields

Despite his recent struggles, Tiger Woods' long period of dominance has squarely placed him among the best players in the game's history. (USGA/Simon Bruty)

Birthdays occurring near the holidays tend to be overlooked, like a tiny present hiding under a mountain of crumpled wrapping paper in a busy den, but this occasion isn’t one of them. Tiger Woods is 40 years old on Dec. 30, and as milestones for amazing athletes go, it’s a big one. That he is currently unable even to play golf as he recovers from a third microdiscectomy makes it a much bolder demarcation. Nerves on the greens are one thing, but nerves in the back are yet another.

“I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy,” Woods said earlier this month of his competitive prospects. Coming from a man who had been consumed by winning and did more of it during his time than anyone else, it was a jarring comment but also felt as honest as sworn testimony.

Whether Woods is now officially middle-aged – by some definitions, the period starts at 45 – doesn’t matter. As an athlete who has endured an orthopedist’s office full of injuries and surgeries in recent years, he has been in that bracket long before he starts his fifth decade on earth. Hobbling on a bad left leg, Woods won his record-tying ninth USGA championship and 14th and last professional major, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when he was only 32.

Seve Ballesteros and Arnold Palmer, whose flair defined previous eras, stopped winning majors at 31 and 34, respectively. It isn’t an uncommon plot. But Woods had such an unusually firm grip on the game at his peak, a hold rooted in the spectacular and the mesmerizing the likes of which had never been seen, that he seemed vaccinated against such a full stop in the events that history counts with a special addition. Plus, winning five times in a year, as Woods did in 2013, is a pretty good tease. Even these last couple of seasons as his dominance diminished and then disappeared, you weren’t a fool to believe that an older Tiger, if all the stars aligned, could at least enjoy a cameo as the Tiger of old. Amid make-or-break pressure, legendary athletes force time to slow down on the last hole, in the bottom of the ninth inning or the waning seconds. It is only natural to want to do the same for them, to pause a clock that can’t be paused.

Tiger at 40: His USGA Career
A look at Tiger Woods' nine USGA championship victories, from 1991 to 2008

Young Tom Morris, a four-time Open Championship winner and the Tiger Woods of the 19th century, had been dead for 16 years on the 40th anniversary of his birth. The three men widely regarded as the best of their times the way Woods is for his – Bob Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus – reached their 40th birthdays at different places in their lives. Aside from an annual appearance in the Masters, Jones had been retired from competition for a dozen years. Hogan, nearly killed in a car accident early in 1949, was a year away from his defining season, his 1953 Triple Crown. Nicklaus, coming out of a lousy 1979, his first winless campaign since joining the PGA Tour in 1962, adjusted his swing and chipping technique and, reinvigorated by the improvements, won the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA Championship after turning 40 in January. Hoisting the trophy in June at Baltusrol, Nicklaus’ broad smile spoke volumes about what it meant to him. Leader board volunteers spelled it simply in block letters: “Jack is Back.”

Nicklaus, of course, authored a much bigger surprise six years later when he won his sixth Masters title at age 46, becoming the second-oldest man to win a major championship. Julius Boros was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship – a record that still stands but was nearly shattered at the 2009 Open Championship by 59-year-old Tom Watson, who was a 72nd-hole par away from achieving one of the most significant and surprising victories in sports history, let alone golf.

That biggest one got away from Watson, reminding us that major titles by golfers 40 or older are rare, with fewer than 10 percent of professional major championships contested since the inaugural Open Championship in 1860 won by players of that age (36 of 415). Harry Vardon, who won two (1911, 1914) of his six Open Championships over 40 after having tuberculosis, and Hogan are exceptions to the rule that most who have won majors at 40 and beyond have been smooth swingers and/or golfers who avoided major health issues as they aged, including Nicklaus, Boros, Sam Snead, Hale Irwin, Roberto de Vicenzo and Vijay Singh.

Woods doesn’t fit in either camp, a fact that has to inform his view of what might come next. Nor is he blind to what has happened while he aged with physical problems: The game is becoming chock full of talented young players, many of whom were inspired by Woods’ example of extensive training and full-throttle golf. Thanks to modern media and the 24/7 news cycle, no great golfer was ever as visible as Woods.

 

Six of the last eight men’s major championships have been won by golfers in their 20s – Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day among them – and yet these young stars are only on the entrance ramp toward achieving what Woods has over a couple of decades.

Tiger didn’t just transform potential into accomplishment, he kept building stories on top of it, a skyscraper of success. Seventy-nine PGA Tour victories, second only to Snead’s 82. Fourteen professional majors, second only to Nicklaus’ 18. In the heart of his career, an 11-season stretch from 1999 through 2009, Woods won 64 times, a total that would tie him for fourth with Hogan on the all-time PGA Tour victory list. Of course, the last year of that stretch was marked by shock and surprise, as Woods blew a 54-hole lead in a major championship for the first time in his career, losing to Y.E. Yang in the PGA at Hazeltine, and then three months later was involved in the car accident outside his Orlando home that began the public unraveling of his carefully crafted image.

Despite not winning a tournament in four of the last six seasons – a period marked by several long absences from competition following the turmoil in his personal life and numerous health woes – Woods has still won almost a quarter of the tournaments he has ever played and has top-10 finishes in more than half. Like Nicklaus, whose peers marveled at his ability to never hit a careless shot, Woods rarely let an off day careen toward awful. The effort required to keep a 73 from turning into a 77 on a Thursday when the mind or body is misfiring, will never get the attention that showy shots on a winning Sunday will, but Woods has had that type of relentlessness in abundance since he was a teenager.

Woods was a skinny 15-year-old in 1991 when he became the youngest golfer to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, a record he held until Jim Liu won at 14 in 2010. He displayed his grit in the final at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando against Brad Zwetschke, who surged to a 3-up lead after six holes. Woods rallied to lead by 1 up going to No. 18, where he hooked a shot out of bounds and lost the hole. But Woods won on the 19th hole for the first of an unmatched three consecutive victories in the championship that were followed by another USGA first: three straight triumphs in the U.S. Amateur.

In each of those victories, Woods trailed in the final match. Against Trip Kuehne at TPC Sawgrass in 1994, Tiger rallied from 5 down. He was 3 down to Buddy Marucci during the first 18 at Newport (R.I.) Country Club in 1995. And at Oregon’s Pumpkin Ridge in 1996, Woods trailed Steve Scott by five holes during a dramatic match, one of the most entertaining and exciting in the championship’s long history, before winning on the 38th hole. Scott was 2 up going to the 34th hole, but Woods birdied from 8 feet to trim the deficit. On the next hole, Woods pulled off the kind of big-moment shot – a curling, 35-foot birdie putt to square the match – that would become his trademark. Woods’ pursuit of the unprecedented triple attracted the Amateur’s biggest gallery since Jones wrapped up the 1930 Grand Slam in the U.S. Amateur at Merion. (It is fitting that Jones and Woods, phenoms who energized different eras in similar ways, share the mark for most USGA success.)

A few days after winning a USGA championship for the sixth straight year, Woods showed up at the Greater Milwaukee Open – “Hello, world” – for his professional debut, lucrative endorsement contracts in tow, trying to secure a Tour card for 1997 in the limited starts he would receive through sponsor exemptions. He was about 4 months from turning 21, and despite his amateur successes there was still a measure of skepticism among some of the hardened Tour pros he was now trying to beat. Their doubts – and his own, if he had any – were soon gone. Woods didn’t contend in Wisconsin, but won twice in October, the Las Vegas Invitational and Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, and finished 24th on the PGA Tour money list in just eight events. Jordan Spieth was 3 years old. Rory McIlroy was 7. Jason Day was about to turn 9.

As those boys grew up, they saw Woods win the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. They watched him capture an unprecedented four consecutive professional major championships in 2000-01, the “Tiger Slam,” which began with an overwhelming 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. They saw Woods win and win and win, his many victories full of eye-candy shots: a towering approach over water from a fairway bunker in Canada; a chip that took its sweet time before dropping in Georgia; a putt across the final green to win in Orlando, an unlikely stroke if it had been anybody but Tiger. He seemed to know a secret code for executing crucial shots, each more memorable than the last, a “SportsCenter” staple as sure as alley-oops and last-lap crashes.

As Tiger turns 40, not only do my thoughts return to the first tournament he played as a professional and all the hours I’ve spent watching him play in the two decades since. I remember when I met him in the fall of 1991, a couple of months before his 16th birthday. I visited him at home in California to write a magazine profile of this kid who people had been talking about since he took his little golf clubs on “The Mike Douglas Show” and had a putting contest with Bob Hope when he was 2.

Supple and skinny but golf-strong, already 6 feet but not even 140 pounds, he was good then and knew he was going to get better. All his talent and effort, all the victories in junior competition and all the you-can-do-it nurturing from his parents, Earl and Kultida, had already lined his golf future with the kind of potential seldom seen in the game. Earlier that year, after winning his first U.S. Junior, Woods had told The New York Times, “I want to become the Michael Jordan of golf.” Jordan had just led the Chicago Bulls to the first of six NBA titles in the 1990s – there would be two three-peats with a brief Jordan retirement in between – and was lighting up the league with play as driven as it was high-flying.

“I want to be the best golfer ever,” Woods told me that October weekend. “I don’t know whether I’ll achieve it or not, but it’s a helluva goal. I think I’d be more worried if I set too low a goal and achieved it too easily.”

It's Never Too Late: Major Winners Beyond the Age of 40 (Since World War II)
Player Major Victories After 40 (age)
Phil Mickelson The Open Championship, 2013 (43)
Ernie Els The Open Championship, 2012 (42)
Darren Clarke The Open Championship, 2011 (42)
Vijay Singh PGA Championship, 2004 (41)
Payne Stewart U.S. Open, 1999 (42)
Mark O'Meara Masters, 1998 (41); The Open Championship, 1998 (41)
Ben Crenshaw Masters, 1995 (43)
Tom Kite U.S. Open, 1992 (42)
Hale Irwin U.S. Open, 1990 (45)
Raymond Floyd U.S. Open, 1986 (43)
Jack Nicklaus U.S. Open, 1980 (40); PGA Championship, 1980 (40); Masters, 1986 (46)
Lee Trevino PGA Championship, 1984 (44)
Gary Player Masters, 1978 (42)
Julius Boros U.S. Open, 1963 (43); PGA Championship, 1968 (48)
Roberto De Vicenzo The Open Championship, 1967 (44)
Jerry Barber PGA Championship, 1961 (45)
Tommy Bolt U.S. Open, 1958 (42)
Sam Snead Masters, 1954 (41)
Ben Hogan Masters, 1953 (40); U.S. Open, 1953 (40); The Open Championship, 1953 (40)
Henry Cotton The Open Championship, 1948 (41)

Measured strictly by the numbers, he is short of Snead and Nicklaus, not yet the best. The condition of his body and the speed bump he created when his private life blew up in 2009 have jeopardized his pursuit of both records. Woods and everybody who has been fascinated by his golf will wonder how this last half-decade or so would have played out for him without injury and distraction. Now or a hundred years from now, no one will ever know. When the time comes that Tiger has settled into life as a father, restaurant owner and golf course designer and no longer as a golfer, whatever is missing from his career tally won’t be as noticeable as what is there. If you’re a kid, though, and Tiger tells you it’s a good idea to have a goal and go for it, listening closely would be a good idea. 

Woods was unusually forthcoming in a recent interview with Lorne Rubenstein for Time.com, the kind of meaningful sit-down he had never done. Perhaps it was an indication that a 40th birthday is for Tiger what is for most everyone: You think about where you’ve been and where you’re going. Woods let his guard down, as much as he ever has. He got some things off his chest. To Tigerologists, of course, there were nitpicks. Cynics of a certain age recalled what the sports columnist Frank Graham wrote of a prickly ballplayer who tried to soften his image with the writers near the end of his career: “He’s learning how to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye.” Regardless of Tiger’s motivation, it was a window into this person who has lived on our screens, who played action-figure golf but is at the moment out of costume and looking forward to the day when he is physically able to swing a club. Two fingers to the brim of his cap, not an upper-cut to the clouds.

This is Tiger at 40, the most modest of expectations in place of the massive. He has done more than he will do in the game that he bent his way in a manner no one else quite has. That much is certain. The rest is dependent on what his body allows and his mind wants, a forecast as uncertain as the weather before radar. If there is more golf – more powerful, pain-free, producing-in-the-clutch golf – I would call it, for him and us, dessert.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to USGA websites.

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