After years of golf pundits trying to predict his end, Tiger Woods finally seemed to have aged out Sunday, and at the place where he not so long ago brought the Masters to its creaky knees.
And an hour later, he revived himself, sort of. He is the most maddening bastard about this old-body thing.
Woods shot a mega-hideous 10 on the 12th hole Sunday, filling Rae’s Creek with half a bag of balls. The last of them came from a Himalayan bunker lie that caused him to hit out with his left foot at the level of his right hip. It was a shot so preposterous in concept as well as execution that even the CBS analyst said, “Certainly that’s going to hurt his back…” Woods then pulled himself out of the bunker like a sclerotic 67-year-old on a public course, thus verifying the snap diagnosis.
But then, because he dies exceedingly hard, he provided his own compelling counterfactual by birdieing 13, 15, 16, 17, and 18, and reminding us of his still-low-firing Tigerhood. It’s as if he felt himself entering late-stage Julius Boros and stopped it. At least for the moment, anyway. He will ultimately be that 10, and in that way the 12th hole was the biggest tease yet.
This is not a celebration of either moment; Woods has had as many surgeries as the average offensive lineman, and has spent the last decade pushing back on the calendar with considerable force and determination. Hell, he shot the equivalent of a 57 after blowing up the tournament. Still, when the moment came, even with all the scarry patchwork, it was jarring. That one shot, that one hole, eradicated most of the other memories of the week, including Dustin Johnson’s victory. Tiger’s Comedy 10 won’t be part of any History Of The Masters montage, but it is the image that imprints itself most permanently on this tournament.
Single images are liars, and predicting the real end of Tiger Woods is an idiot’s game because he is more ornery than most about his athletic mortality. He is not the type to just hop in the courtesy car after his last round, hurl an empty can of lager out the sunroof and yell, “So long, suckers!” He will have to be dragged off the course by his eyelids. He will not only play again, but he may even win again, probably the Malignant Corporate Monolith Classic in Dubai.
And whether you are washing yourself in a warm bath of schadenfreude about the 10 or rejoicing in the subsequent 20, be my guest either way. The reward of fame is money and the price of fame is cruelty. He asked for all of it, and all of it came. Knock yourselves out.
But that one shot, the sixth on the hole and the 263rd in a tournament, and his leaving the bunker in halting stages just looked like it should be the demarcation line of his advancement into ceremonial first drive territory. It was such a mockery of his legacy as the coolest golfer of his generation (we cannot speak to the raw brilliance and sexuality of Old Tom Morris) that it seemed like it should mean something lasting. He’s had bad holes before, including a nine at 1997 Memorial and two eights at different U.S. Opens, but the Masters is essentially golf’s Louvre, and a 10 from Tiger Woods on its most famous hole is the equivalent of one of those Spanish art restorations given to an itinerant plasterer and mangled beyond recognition.
Then Woods jammed his middle finger up to the second knuckle in the course’s eye and our predictions of his demise, and here we are, right where we were. He gave us his very worst and his staggering best in 100 minutes. The COVID Masters was his, even though he lost by 19.
By mundane comparison, the 63-year-old Bernhard Langer, who has the face of Carlton Fisk’s first catcher’s mitt, went 68-73-73-71 and finished minus-3 without any fuss at all. Some folks actually can gob on the calendar and not leave us ambiguous about their place. But he’s not Tiger.
Ray Ratto doesn’t play golf and looks like a World War II duffel bag that’s been buried in a lime pit.