LOUISVILLE, Ky. – At the ugly, dispiriting, depressing end, Tiger Woods stood at the back edge of the 18th green and heaved a heavy, defeated sigh.
Hands on hips, he gazed at a PGA Championship leaderboard that did not bear his name. He listened to the big gallery gathered there roar for someone other than him – Phil Mickelson, who dropped an eagle putt. The man who inspired global awe now provoked pity.
"I tried as hard as I could," he said. "That's about all I got."
When the best Tiger Woods can do is a pair of 74s and a missed cut on a forgiving course, you know it's bad. He finished tied for 117th with punch line John Daly, and three strokes behind 65-year-old Tom Watson. Cut missed, Woods was taking his aching back and battered pride home.
And it may be a long time before we see him play golf again. He's physically shot, certainly not resembling a player who would help the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
In hindsight, playing here was Tiger's dumbest decision since the Perkins waitress.
After injuring his surgically repaired back and withdrawing Sunday in Akron, he flew home for two days and arrived here late for abbreviated practice. He played a rusty round Thursday that left him nine shots behind the leaders. Then Woods said he tweaked the back again Friday on the driving range hitting a 4-iron, but gritted his way through a round of pure misery.
Ever the contrarian, Tiger refused to say he regretted playing. But he didn't have to acknowledge what seemed clear to us all.
"That was tough," he said. "…[My back] was telling me on the range [playing] probably wasn't a good idea, but I'm not exactly a non-stubborn person.
"I couldn't make a backswing. I can't get the club back."
Without being able to get his back into it, Woods didn't seem to have his heart into it, either. On a day when four players withdrew, Tiger grimly decided he wouldn't be one of them. But there were times when he scarcely seemed to even follow the flight of his tee shots, dejected by their wayward direction or lackluster velocity.
The pre-round goal of shooting low enough to make the cut quickly was scaled back to simply getting through the day. This was a salvage operation.
A soggy but spirited gallery did its best to encourage Woods. There was almost a sad nostalgia in the stagnant Kentucky air as the struggling icon labored through the round.
"Keep working at it, Tiger!" a woman exhorted. "Keep working!"
"Finish strong, Tiger!" a man shouted.
At the island green on the 13th, a man broke the quiet by yelling, "C'mon, Tiger! For old times' sake!" He missed the putt.
On the 18th tee, a woman crossed the fingers on her left hand and held her breath, hoping for one final flash of greatness. Woods delivered a solid tee shot and she screamed, "Wooooo!" But the jig was up by then, the thrill ephemeral. All the urging in the world wasn't going to conjure up the Tiger they remember from 14 years ago.
"The fans were fantastic," Woods said. "They were cheering us on and so supportive. …These people are sports fanatics. This is a great sporting town. They showed up in droves and today wasn't exactly the best weather day. They supported all of us."
Now it is time for the 38-year-old to do what he hates to do: acknowledge weakness, admit defeat, and make a concession to his age and relative infirmity. It's time to sit out of competition for the foreseeable future.
Woods rushed his return from back surgery, and the results have been a disaster. He's played poorly and reinjured himself.
He said his core strength is not what it needs to be – but he can't do those workouts until he's healthy. Yet he hasn't given himself the time to get healthy, and thus work out the way he used to. It's been a vicious cycle of futility caused by an overabundance of pride – a wonderful characteristic for an athlete to have, but also at times a damaging one.
The best thing Tiger Woods can do for himself, and all the people who want to see him play like he once did, is to shut down his game for a while. Come back in 2015, and try to recapture the glory anew.
That gets harder with each passing year and each physical breakdown, and hearing the clock ticking in his head might have been a factor in his rushed return this season. But this was no way for a legend to play.