Sometimes, greatness can swallow itself up. Sometimes, it burns so hot that it extinguishes itself by exhausting all available oxygen around it.
This was Tiger Woods from June 12 through 16, 2008, during the United States Open Championship at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, Calif.
Over the stretch of five tournament rounds, Woods played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament and, as we later discovered, a double stress fracture of his left tibia.
This is the single greatest sports feat I have ever witnessed, and really, you can only look to individual performances at any Olympic Games to compare. And even then, you’d have to find me an Olympian winning a gold medal as their body was broken.
Go ahead and spend a few days trying to find a comp.
That was in June 2008.
This is April 2015.
And now we have seen the real toll that performance took on Woods golfing life.
He has not won a major championship since.
We know all about 2009. He famously came back and contended at the Masters and U.S. Open (ties for sixth), missed the cut at the Open Championship and watched a 54-hold lead disappear for the first time in his career by falling to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship.
Then, his personal life unraveled in front of all of us.
But, in 2010, he nearly won the Masters and the U.S. Open again (ties for fourth).
That’s five top six’s in six majors. Major No. 15 seemed inevitable.
Beginning with the 2010 Open Championship, Woods has finished:
- Third: once
- Fourth: twice
- Sixth: once
- Outside the top 10: seven times
- Missed the cut: twice
- Did not play: four times
His body is broken. That unbelievable mental strength is gone.
After his marriage crumbled oh so publicly, I confidently stated Woods would still get to 20 major victories.
Now, I think he’ll get one more, maybe two – but only in Europe, where his remaining talent will one day converge with a friendly golf course and environment that has managed to bring "old guys" back to the forefront for a week.
I think most of us know this by now.
But for all of the talk about golf’s "young guns" and the "passing of torches," let’s be honest about something. It hasn’t happened yet. Woods is still the dominant storyline every major week, and in the weeks before and after.
Rory McIlroy has four major victories and only needs to capture The Masters this week to earn the career grand slam by the age of 25. That’s incredible.
And he needs to win the Masters in order to tie Woods’ career pace of five majors before his 26th birthday, as McIlroy hits that number in May.
And really, the "passing of the torch" conversation begins and ends with McIlroy. We remember recent major winners Adam Scott and Justin Rose and youthful lads, but they are each 34 years old now. Young in life and a golfing career, yes, but a "young gun" in golf to take Woods’ throne? Not so much.
Jason Day (27) and Rickie Fowler (26) are young but majorless (again, Rory has four already and Woods had eight by the time he turned 27).
See, this is how a wayward Woods has hurt the game.
He set an unrealistic standard for these young players. This is true. And we all know it. Yet we can’t help ourselves. We have to compare. He inspired these guys to play, to turn their bodies into high performance machines, to go low, and to win big.
Yet none can win as big as Woods.
He has 14 major championships. The next closest on the list is Walter Hagen at 11. Until McIlroy captures his next major, only two other players outside of Woods has won one for the thumb in a "winning window" that existed after 1988, and that’s Nick Faldo and Phil Mickelson.
That’s right. Three guys, in nearly three decades. And Faldo’s run ended in 1996.
Time will tell us that placing such weight on the shoulders of the game’s youth was unfair.
But right now, with a damaged Woods still limping around, and still good enough to win while doing so, it puts the game in an odd space. We can’t move on.
We kind of need to yet no one will be able to. Ever.
Golf courses were "Tiger proofed" which meant they were made longer, more difficult. More pure athletes were drawn to the game thanks to Woods, deepening fields, making it harder to win year after year. Thanks to Woods, more money is available to all of these players, and, thusly, the maniacal desire to win at all costs has been lessened.
All of this has leveled the game. And while team sports can thrive on parity, individual sports cannot.
But, see, these golfers are smart. They see the price Woods has paid to reach the No. 19. And not only that, he has paid it and failed to meet the goal.
They are not him, so what chance do they have? Why should they try for it? These are good questions.
The lone hope is McIlroy, who may yet win another eight majors in his life.
That would give him 12, good "only" for third all-time, and two behind Woods (if he never won again). And, yet, winning "just" another eight would tie him with Tom Watson for most in a lifetime.
Woods’ may have denied himself his prime years, and his life’s dream, with that week in San Diego. It happens. It’s sports. But what’s more telling is that as his light as dimmed, it’s cast a shadow over the rest of the game that will take a long time to pass.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.