Augusta National, April 10, 2016. Jordan Spieth watches helplessly as his second shot on the 12th hole trickles into Rae’s Creek, his lead vanishing along with it. Beside him, a familiar figure in red and black has just been handed the Masters lead, and he won’t relinquish—
All right, that’s enough of that garbage. There isn’t much worse in this world than sports-fan fiction, even if it’s the only way we can still envision Tiger Woods winning another major.
Still, though—up until a few months ago, we would’ve said the same thing about Roger Federer winning another major. This time last week, we were still in the he-can’t-win-Wimbledon-again-can-he? stage with Federer at Wimbledon. And yet here we are, Federer clocking his 19th major and outrunning a third generation of rivals … exactly the way Woods was supposed to do.
It’s a grim little irony of the sports calendar that Federer’s victory came about 12 hours before Woods officially dropped out of the Top 1000 in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR). The mathematical nuances of the ranking aren’t important for this discussion, but it’s worth noting that the OWGR ranks players based on a rolling two-year total of tournament performances. And in the last two years, Woods has, well—trigger warning, Tiger fans:
• Played in seven tournaments, and completed just three of them;
• Played in two majors, and missed the cut in both;
• Played 19 rounds of golf in the past 731 days;
• Posted a T10 and T18 in the two full-field tournaments he completed;
• Finished 15th (of 17) in the glorified shootaround that was the Hero World Challenge in December.
That’s not just a train wreck, that’s a jump-the-track-and-plummet-into-a-ravine apocalypse. Woods won’t be teeing it up at this week’s Open Championship, or next month’s PGA Championship, or probably any other tournaments for quite some time, given the fact that he’s undergone fusion surgery as well as treatment for painkillers. He’ll continue to fall as even his most meager results fade into the farther distance. It’s been nine years since Woods won his last major; in the nine years before that, Woods had won 13 of his 14 total.
The comparisons with Federer, who stacked up majors at a Tiger-esque rate from 2003 to 2010, are easy enough, given that both golf and tennis are individual sports with four annual touchstones for greatness. At their height, Woods and Federer both radiated icy excellence, relentless will combined with crystal-pure execution. They even had a little Nike-fostered rivalry:
But somewhere around the summer of 2008, their fortunes diverged. Woods won his 14th and almost surely final major, taking down the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in one of the finest performances of his career. Just a few days later, Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in a five-set Wimbledon gem that might well be the greatest tennis match in history. It was the last moment that Woods had an edge over Federer, who would win the U.S. Open later that year—as well as another six majors after that, including Sunday’s Wimbledon.
Fate and failings hit Woods from so many different angles after 2008—scandal, divorce, DWI, rehab, injury after injury—that it’s impossible to point to just one reason for why his fortunes cratered. We don’t know all the details about what Federer does off the court—intergalactic bounty hunter isn’t off the table—but nothing he’s suffered compares even remotely to Woods’ travails.
Woods is six years older than Federer; his chances of a similar late-career major rally are about the same as his chances of winning Wimbledon. Still, you can’t help but think, “What if … ?” What if Woods had put on a serious charge for one of those majors he watched on television or from far down the leaderboard? What if he had challenged Jordan Spieth at Augusta, or Rory McIlroy at Congressional, or Phil Mickelson at Muirfield? What if mind, body, spirit, fate and competition had all aligned for just one more weekend with Woods, the way they have with Federer?
It didn’t seem like it would end this way in 2008, but that’s what we’re left with now. Federer’s twilight brilliance is Woods’ could-have-been.
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 email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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