Huggan: Was that really goodbye, Tiger?

As always with Tiger Woods, his premature and disappointing departure from the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews was open, final only in the fact that he hit the ball too often. Never mind, for just the fourth time in 22 appearances at golf’s oldest and biggest event, the (permanently?) ill 46-year-old missed the cut.

Not much else is clear though.

His future – as a player at least – remains shrouded in characteristic mystery. Nothing new there, of course. When it comes to Woods, there have always been significant and, quite often, carefully crafted gaps in the narrative.

Her past relationship with prescription drugs has never been fully explained. Nor his interaction with at least one dodgy doctor. How many women were there in his shadow life during the years of “sex addiction”? The cause of the car accident that left him unable to walk with anything like relish also remains unclear. Has he fallen asleep? Was he driving too fast? Did he just lose control?

So many secrets. But this last and perhaps last question is at least a little different. It is suspected that even the man himself is unsure if he will be physically able to compete in earnest again without the aid of a golf cart. As Tiger made his cautious, sometimes hesitant, and definitely laborious way through the premises, this week’s class wasn’t the only thing we can rightfully call “old.”

Tiger’s looked increasingly exhausted during Open week. PHOTO: Getty Images.

There is an obvious sadness attached to what we have just witnessed. There is no doubt that the man, who surely played the game better than anyone else, deserves to come out on his own terms. And at a time of his choosing, if his stature as a golfer should be our only measure.

While Jack Nicklaus boasts more major championship wins – 18 to Tiger’s 15 – there’s no doubt here that Woods’ best golf was greater than anything the Golden Bear has produced. This seems outrageous and is not intended as an insult to our game’s greatest competitor. Yes, Jack was clearly the dominant figure in a time of very great players, but he never won back-to-back Grand Prix titles. Slam by 23 cumulative shots, like Woods did in 2000.

It was a sometimes painful display from Tiger at the 150th Open. PHOTO: Getty Images.

Unfortunately, then, it was the frailty of Woods’ body – not the matchless strength of his golfing spirit – that would ultimately determine the end of his incredible career.

Which is a shame in many ways, not least that Woods’ recent history embodies an old adage: he only learned to say hello when it was almost time to say goodbye. Almost all elite golfers say the same thing. Gone is the cold-hearted “killer” who eliminated all challengers, no doubt along the way, breaking the hearts of those who will follow – Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

Replacing this silent assassin is, by all accounts, a new Tiger. A changed man, an accessible man, a proud father of his two children. Which is good to hear. In many ways, this is a time of opportunity for Woods. It doesn’t matter that he can’t play like before. It was going to happen anyway. Even in golf, a game known for its longevity, Father Time remains unbeaten. And given this immutable fact, he now has the chance to assume a statesman’s role. Think of the good the late Muhammad Ali was able to accomplish long after he retired from boxing – simply by being who he was.

Yet, at times like this, the temptation is there to look back as well as forward. Everyone has a Woods highlight reel, and this writer is no different. Two decades later, my friend and comrade Australia Golf Magazine contributor, Mike Clayton, continues to reminisce (and salivate) on a shot we saw Woods hit during the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black. With us, we had the ideal “down the line” view and immediately after a lightning delay he hit a towering 2 iron on a far green. Fade-tinged and memorably translucent against the near-black sky, the ball flew and landed perfectly. I can see it now.

Years later, still in the company of Clayton (golf’s greatest spectator), I watched in awe of the subtlety and majesty of how Woods played at Royal Melbourne in the 2019 Presidents Cup. Even in a field of star names, he stood out, his mastery of flight and trajectory beyond any other. It was a beautiful thing, a rare thing, and the perfect marriage of golfer and golf course.

Tiger at St. Andrews in 2000, en route to his record-breaking first Open Championship. PHOTO: Getty Images.

Then there was the US Open 2000 at Pebble Beach. It was a privilege to watch golf being played in this manner. Not just full shots, but also putting. Woods, the only under-par man after 72 holes, won that event by 15 strokes. You don’t do something that extraordinary with a ball strike alone. You can not. Tee-to-green superiority isn’t enough to pull this apart. The hole of (many) putts must also be involved. Which is an often overlooked aspect of Woods’ dominant years. He missed putts, yes. Of course he did. But he apparently never missed one that really mattered. He knew the difference.

And now those days are seemingly over.

The tiger around 2022 is more human. It lacks (still) more fairways. His ball finds the occasional divot (he’s always been a lucky golfer too). His short game isn’t as sharp. And he needs more than two putts on a lot more greens.

None of that mattered as he emotionally raced up the 18th fairway. One of the most endearing traits of the country that gave golf to the world is the welcome that has always been given to the best American visitors to Scotland. We’re talking about Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Woods falls into that elite category and the crowd recognized his stature with their loud and prolonged display of generosity and respect.

So we’ll always have memories, even if Tiger’s shorter-than-expected visit to golf’s most famous venue is truly the beginning of the end. Let’s hope, in fact, that at least for him as a man, this is actually the end of the beginning. Great things can still await us.

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