AUGUSTA, Ga. — We know all the old highlights by heart. Tiger Woods double-fist-pumping after his miraculous chip-in at the 16th hole in 2005. Embracing his father after his 1997 victory at Augusta. Sunday red, so much Sunday red.
But the spot on 16 where he chipped from no longer exists. Earl Woods has been gone for almost 20 years. And Woods hasn’t worn a red shirt at a major tournament in a year, hasn’t raised a trophy in any tournament since 2019.
Augusta National persists, but the champions always change. Some stick around for years, some for decades, but eventually, everyone must bid farewell to the Masters, even its greatest champions.
Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters early Sunday morning after a brutal Saturday in which he fell from comfortably inside the cut line to just outside to back in by the slimmest of margins, a Saturday whose wind and cold made walking the hills of Augusta National a miserable experience. He started the third round on the 10th tee at 3-over, played seven holes, and plummeted down the leaderboard. He hung on through Amen Corner, then played 14, 15 and 16 at bogey, double bogey, double bogey.
At that memorable 16th, in a stinging sideways rain, Woods’ tee shot didn’t even clear the short pond in front of him, just plunged straight into the depths well short of land. His face didn’t look angry or resolute; he just looked beaten in a way we’ve almost never seen. Woods was running below empty, coasting on momentum alone and, finally, slowing to a dead stop. Mercifully, the weather horn sounded just a few minutes later, ending the torture of what was likely going to be his worst round ever at the Masters.
Sixteen hours later, he declared he was done. When will we see him again? No one knows, perhaps not even Woods himself. He’s already declared he’s playing only majors and significant tournaments from here on out, but he he's completed just one event in the last year — the Genesis Invitational in February. When winning seems impossible and reaching the weekend is a headline-worthy achievement, how much longer will he put himself through this?
To be clear, this isn’t a call for Tiger Woods to quit. Not now, not ever. If he wants to play, he should damn well play anywhere he wants at any time. Woods has earned the right to play Augusta National for as long as he wishes, regardless of what any critics outside his own head might say.
Listen around the clubhouse oak, talk to the right people, and you’ll hear the persistent rumor that the green jackets “encourage” certain past champions with lifetime playing privileges to hang it up, to surrender the course to the next generation. Just try telling Tiger freaking Woods that he’s not welcome to play Augusta National any longer. There’s decorum, there’s pace-of-play, and then there’s what’s right. Tiger Woods at Augusta National in April is just right, pure and simple.
Woods’ decline is a stark, wrenching reminder of the wicked power of time. Woods has played for so long, at such a high level, that we’ve all gone through several phases of our lives watching him. A child born around the time of Woods’ first Masters win is now long out of college, possibly married, maybe even starting a family of their own. Young fans who once cheered Tiger as their personal stand against conformity and tradition are now deep into middle age, probably dealing with their own slate of aches and pains. If time comes even for Tiger Woods, what chance do the rest of us have?
Expectations, his and ours, have diminished to the point that even a Tiger Woods appearance is enough to get the golf world thanking the heavens in gratitude. Once, Woods roared into every tournament expecting to devour the field, and for more than a decade he did exactly that. He now edges in, focused only on the next hole, the next shot, the next step.
Listen to how he assessed his week after shooting what, in retrospect, was a pretty decent 2-over round on Thursday:
“This is going to be an interesting finish to the tournament with the weather coming in,” Woods said. “If I can just kind of hang in there, maybe kind of inch my way back, hopefully it will be positive towards the end.”
Hang in there. Inch back. Hopefully positive toward the end. Woods used to come into every tournament proclaiming he was there to win. Now, he’s trying to cobble together a last few tiny successes, trying to hold off the gathering darkness.
It’s no longer about winning. It’s now about finishing. When he can’t even do that, how much longer will he put himself through this?