Enjoy whatever good moments Tiger Woods has left, because there won’t be many

The clue was right there, buried deep in an otherwise routine Tiger Woods interview last week: “I feel good, not great,” Woods said. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel great, because it’s three back surgeries, four knee operations…”

I feel good, not great. For Woods, who has spent an entire career insisting, often in the face of all sane evidence, that he wasn’t just great, he was greater than you could imagine, this was a remarkable concession. This was a man laying down his sword and shield. This was surrender.

And now, we know why: Woods’ comeback after 16 months recuperating away from professional golf has hit a wall, and hit it hard. Woods on Friday announced he was withdrawing from both the Genesis Open and the Honda Classic because of recurring back spasms, this after missing the cut in Torrey Pines in January and withdrawing after a single ugly round in Dubai a week ago.

“My doctors have advised me not to play the next two weeks to continue my treatment and to let my back calm down,” Woods said in a statement announcing his withdrawal. “This is not what I was hoping for or expecting.”

That’s the thing about reality, though … it has a way of crushing both hopes and expectations.

Tiger Woods is nearing the end, whether we want to admit it or not. (Getty)
Tiger Woods is nearing the end, whether we want to admit it or not. (Getty)

Nine weeks ago, Woods played his first competitive rounds in more than a year at a remote, cloistered private club in the Bahamas. He looked exquisite on some holes, lost on others. He bobbed around par like a man in the deep ocean trying to keep his head above water. When he finished the weekend — closing out the final hole of the tournament with a double-bogey — both he and the assembled media declared the return performance a success by admittedly low standards. Woods had played all four rounds and no part of his body had detonated, so … hurrah!

What no one seemed to notice in all the Tiger’s back! revelry was that the tournament’s winner, Hideki Matsuyama, finished more than a dozen strokes ahead of Woods. Where Woods had to scramble his way through an easy course setup, Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson – guys who grew up admiring Tiger, guys too young to know fear when they saw Woods’ name on a leaderboard – were throwing darts, carving their names into the course.

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Woods is on the wrong end of the devil’s bargain that golf makes with its players. The nature of the sport means that pro golfers can play forever; Phil Mickelson is still playing at a tournament-winning level, and he turned pro three years before the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott was even born.

Plus, even as players’ skills decline, golf keeps its doors open, especially for its legends. They can use past triumphs and sponsor goodwill as entry into future tournaments, and then, right as their games truly start to turn south, they can jump to the Champions Tour and beat up on their even more aged colleagues.

But competing isn’t anywhere close to winning; plodding around a course for four days and picking up a check is no comfort when you’re accustomed to leading the charge. Every swing Woods makes is a hazy gray echo of the stronger, better, sharper swing he used to make; every hobbling trip around Augusta or Pebble Beach or St. Andrews is a grim reminder of how he once owned those tracks.

Woods’ greatest weapon was never his laser-sight putter, his howitzer driver, or his walk-on-water short game. No, his finest asset was always his will, his refusal to even consider the possibility he might lose. He willed himself to victory as a 21-year-old striding onto the foreboding green of Augusta National, he willed himself to win after win in the miraculous six-major run of 2000-01, and he willed himself to one final conquest on a broken leg at Torrey Pines in 2008. That was the triumphant crescendo, the last high point of Woods’ transcendent career, though none of us knew it at the time.

And now, even that unbreakable will has abandoned him. I feel good, not great. I don’t think I’ll ever feel great.

Tiger Woods is transitioning from player to icon. (Getty Images)
Tiger Woods is transitioning from player to icon. (Getty Images)

Here’s the cold truth: retirement is looming large in Woods’ near future, retirement brought on by a body broken and repaired too many times, a mind that finally acknowledges the sad inevitable.

Woods is only 41 years old, still five years younger than Jack Nicklaus was when the Golden Bear won his last major. Woods surely still hopes to play at this year’s Masters, surely still wants to believe there’s magic left in his old Scotty Cameron putter. And maybe there is. It’s a fine thought, a fine dream to have.

But Woods’ birdies are numbered, his remaining majors even more so. This is his closing act, his coda, and when he gets back onto the course — we still hesitate to write “if,” even though we probably should — Woods deserves a standing ovation at every hole. He deserves that appreciation for what he could do once, even if he can’t ever do it again.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.