Tiger Woods has now fallen out of the Top 50 in the rankings.
While there are many who would announce his demise–and there is a strong case to be made–I would have a hard time saying that he’s done.
I’ve seen this in the tennis world. Andre Agassi–after marrying Brooke Shields–dropped out of the top 100 in the ATP rankings. He mounted an impressive comeback, became the fittest player on the tour, and won a few more majors. Ultimately, degenerative disk problems in his back forced his retirement.
An even more impressive comeback was that of Jennifer Capriati. She went from teenage phenom to convict and castout, but made a valiant return and managed to win two Australian Opens and a French Open.
Why do I bring up these examples from the tennis world? It’s not far-removed from golf in terms of the mental aspects. The competition is also very fluid and always steep, and the need for mental toughness is phenomenal. If you are having personal scandals, and you’re down a break against some young upstart in the 5th set in a 3rd round match at Wimbledon, life is going to be hell. The British press is brutal, and the otherwise-dignified crowd will be gunning against you. Rolland Garros isn’t much easier, nor is Flushing Meadow.
Working in Agassi’s–and Capriati’s–favor? They were still relatively young. Agassi made his move at the best possible time: his biggest threat was Sampras, as Federer was still emerging and Nadal and Djokovich hadn’t really come to prominence yet. Capriati had a fair amount of talent around her, although there was no single dominant woman’s player–like a Martina Navratilova or a Steffi Graf–out there.
Tiger, in contrast, is on the back 9 in terms of age. At 35, he is at an age where his body starts deteriorating.
Even though he has an impressive fitness regimen–he may very well be the fittest player in PGA history–the laws of nature are still there. Tendons and ligaments start wearing down. Arthritis starts taking hold. Flexibility starts deteriorating. When you’re talking about a golf swing, small changes in flexibility can mean all the difference in the world for your driving distance and accuracy. You start leaving more drives in the rough than before. Those 300-yard drives start becoming 275-yard drives. Those par 5s–that might make for eagle-birdie holes–become birdie-par holes. Knee surgeries don’t make that any easier.
That puts even more pressure on your short game. Trouble is, where going up and down once gave you the likelihood of a birdie, you start finding yourself having to do that just to save par. Making matters worse, that part of the game is the most difficult if you are savaged by scandals.
Still, while Tiger may be heading into his twilight on the age front, I would not say that he is “done”. I’m willing to bet that he has a couple Major championships left in him. I’m also willing to bet that he can still challenge the top 5 in the rankings.
But right now, whether he does that–or not–is 50/50.
The upshot of all of this: the scandals have exacted a price out of him that is nothing short of horrendous, due to (a) the time in which they occurred, and (b) the nature of the sport involved.