There were times when Tiger Woods was so dominant in golf, so clearly above all others, that you'd have been OK betting him over the entire rest of the field to win the next tournament — especially if it were a major. Remember?
Tiger is old, used, hoping his body holds up. With no more cruelty than accuracy you might call him a has-been, that epitaph in sports that always seems so harsh even when true.
His medical ailments and back surgeries are now a part of his career's story as indelibly as the infidelity scandal that rocked his good name. And his prime runs away from him seemingly faster than he can catch it, his best days ever distant and laden with dust.
“People have written me off,” he said this past spring.
Fathom the weight of those five words to an athlete who once ruled his sport and dreams to do it yet again … but against a prevailing consensus he has no shot.
One of the longest and most intriguing sagas in sports history – the rise, fall and protracted comeback of Tiger Woods — saw its latest line written on Monday when Woods postponed his latest attempt at a career reboot.
He had committed to play this week in the PGA Tour's 2016-17 season-opening event, an otherwise low-watt tournament out in Napa, Calif. There, starting Thursday, Woods was to launch a comeback, his latest and likely his last that will matter — a final, best attempt to chase and still catch the all-time records (two, not one) that drive him.
This would have been his first round of golf in a Tour event in more than a year. In 417 days, to be exact. Instead, Woods withdrew Monday, saying on his website, “I knew I wasn't ready to compete against the best golfers in the world.” He also withdrew from an event next month, but menioned his hope to play starting in December.
So we wait, like we've been waiting. Because we sense this is an athlete, a comeback, that will be worth the wait. Many of us hope that.
Few comeback attempts we have seen in sports will be more closely watched, or carry greater historical gravitas.
Last week this sport buried its most popular player ever, Arnold Palmer. Now the sport awaits the return of the one man who, since the epoch of Arnie and Jack Nicklaus, has most shaped and defined the game.
Tiger, of the 79 PGA Tour victories and 14 major wins — second all-time in both categories — will turn 41 in two months. That isn't even old enough for a decent mid-life crisis for most of us. But to most professional golfers it tends to be that awkward age when one's best days are past and guys are trying to hang on until age 50 brings the consoling replenishment of the Champions (nee Senior) Tour.
Is Woods most golfers, though? He is not.
So Tiger believes — or at least says publicly — that he still can catch and surpass Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. Didn't Jack win three of them past age 40 including a Masters at 46? Woods also still eyes Sam Snead's mark of 82 overall Tour wins.
“It would be nice to end up No. 1 on both lists,” he said. “Hopefully I can get back out there and play to that level. It would be fun to know [if I can]. But I don't know.”
That anything might happen adds to the intrigue.
In the short term, Tiger in his first tournament back might open with a vintage 65 or blow up with a 78. Might be on the Sunday leaderboard or miss the cut. Might withdraw with back spasms. Who knows.
In the longer term, his pending comeback could prove to be the start of a masterful career finish that finds him achieving the history he seeks. Or it could be short-lived, effectively signalling the end of an epic career that placed him with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and LeBron James — a highest-tier sports legend.
Odds are against Woods, for sure. It isn't just his age, or the possibility of more back problems. Tiger hasn't won a tournament of any kind since 2013 and last reigned in a major in the summer of 2008. A whole new generation of younger, stronger players has taken over.
Woods has been No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking a record 683 weeks. Today he is ranked No. 786, just below a person named Fabien Marty.
Tiger Woods is the old guy now. The nostalgia act.
But isn't that why the saga has stayed interesting? Why the next comeback still rivets attention?
It is because Tiger Woods, once the regal champion in the blood-red shirt who we all were betting would win, has become the unlikely underdog we're all betting against.
But, those five words again: “People have written me off.”
That is why so many of us who might not even be golf fans still wait on Tiger Woods, still care. And why so many of us enthralled by that young kid who dominated the 1997 Masters want so hard to believe, almost 20 years later, that he isn't done. Not yet.