Once, his stride down the fairway was bold, forceful, confident, that of a man clearly on a mission, hurrying to an appointment with greatness.
Now, he totters along, gimping and limping, propped on crutches, one leg encased in a walking boot, his gait hesitant and uncertain, and so it is that there occurs to you this thought, sudden and jarring:
He walks like an old man.
He is 35.
Once, the man named Eldrick held us in thrall. He played, as Bobby Jones once said of Jack Nicklaus, "a game with which I'm not familiar." He was wonderfully inventive, an adroit escapist, a nerveless gambler, a prodigious smasher of the little white ball, and a stare-'em-down killer of a putter.
There were times when he was locked in that cocoon of concentration that he seemed — dare we say it? — to be impenetrable, unbeatable, untouchable.
He still has those golden moments. But they are increasingly rare. It may be that he will yet regain some of the magic. Some, but not all, because Tiger Woods is confronted now with something that is truly, cruelly inescapable.
His age is showing, though much too soon, and more telling than that, he is acknowledging the slippage, which he would never have done before, because it signaled weakness. Now, it is almost as though he is looking over his shoulder at the grim specter of time.
Time is the great leveler. Time bides its time, certain that it will have the last word, and it is nonnegotiable.
Time announces itself subtly at first, then with a growing insistence, and it brings with it an old friend:
We all come to know the routine, eventually. The sudden twinge in the shoulder, the stab of arthritis, the hip buckling. Each morning we take inventory, gingerly, bending gently, stretching carefully, and warily asking our body: "What new surprises do you have for me today?"
For the professional athlete, it is more than minor inconvenience or momentary distraction.
They are exactly right, those who remind us that the athlete is the only one who has to die twice — his career first, then, well, whatever it is that comes next.
On one leg alone, Tiger Woods already has endured four operations. And even then the problem persists.
So now the whispers abound: knee replacement.
Golf's Summer Season is upon us now, beckoning, enticing, including three of the majors: the U.S. Open this week, then the British, then the PGA. Tiger Woods used to own summer. Tiger Woods used to win those majors. It became something of a foregone conclusion. Now there is more of the gone than the fore.
He ran up the white flag last week, withdrawing from the Open but saying he still hoped to play in the AT&T National Tournament at Aronimink, which will start June 28.
He hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, and he hasn't won any sort of tournament since November 2009. He is stuck on 14 majors, four behind Nicklaus' record, and on 71 victories worldwide, and if he never wins again … well, those are truly imposing numbers.
And, of course, human nature being what it is, we would be left to wonder and ponder and extrapolate and debate … what might have been, if only …
His long, slow slide began with an American institution that goes "in sickness and in health" and concludes with "alimony and child support totaling …"
Difficult to know what that has cost him. Certainly a bundle financially, but the emotional drain might even be more devastating.
One school of thought is that this was all of his own making, and he is merely reaping what he … well, you know. But before chucking the first boulder it is always prudent to check your own glass house for … well, you know.
Some may have forgiven him by now. Some may not have. The carrion feeders and the tabloids pause from eating their fill. We remain transfixed at the decline and fall of the high and the mighty. And there is something poignant in witnessing the playing out of "To an Athlete Dying Young."
A month ago, at the Players Championship, Tiger Woods struggled through the first nine, shot a ghastly 42, and withdrew. His knee hurt. His Achilles' hurt. His calf hurt. He described it as a chain reaction, the fuse box blowing.
"I'm having a hard time walking," he said, and indeed he was lagging a full football field behind his playing companions, a sad sight compared with the old-time outta-my-way charge.
The root of the problem, he thinks, is in his swing, primarily the snapping of the left leg, a violent, wrenching movement. The golf swing, of course, is hazardous to several portions of the anatomy — try to find just one pro golfer who does not suffer from back maladies.
And while Tiger Woods shuffles along, the rest of the field, muscular young guns nudged along by thermonuclear clubs and high-compression balls, is lashing 340-yard drives and 150-yard wedges.
"They're good," he said, wistfully.
Tiger has studied history and takes solace from this: Nicklaus didn't collect his 15th major until he was 38.
"There's still time," he said.
Invariably at a U.S. Open the field will bleat how unfairly the course has been set up. Trying to embarrass the greatest players in the world, they whine.
To which the USGA archly replies: "Our intent is not to embarrass the world's greatest golfers, merely to identify them."
The man named Eldrick used to be him.