It was 15 minutes into his first public appearance since a terrifying car crash in February that Tiger Woods, assessing an uncertain future and a celebrated past, took the measure of his career.
“I got that last major,” a wistful Woods said on Tuesday, recalling his stunning 2019 victory at the Masters Tournament, golf’s most watched event, at age 43.
Ascending to a similar pinnacle in golf, however, is no longer foremost in Woods’s plans.
“I’ve had a pretty good run,” Woods, with the thinnest of smiles, said at a news conference nine months after he sustained devastating leg injuries when his sport-utility vehicle tumbled off a Los Angeles-area boulevard at a high speed. He added: “I don’t see that type of trend going forward for me. It’s going to have to be a different way. I’m at peace with that. I’ve made the climb enough times.”
In that moment, one of the most influential athletes of the last quarter-century retreated from the brightest spotlight in sports. Woods said he hoped to play competitive golf again at some level, although he offered no timetable for achieving that ambition. Instead, a sporting champion best known for willing himself to victories conceded that his surgically rebuilt right leg would forever inhibit his once-lofty expectations and drive.
“A full practice schedule and the recovery that it would take to do that,” he said, “no, I don’t have any desire to do that.”
It was a striking concession for the tenacious Woods, and an inflection point for golf and sports in general. Woods has been among the world’s most prominent people since he won the first of his 15 major golf championships in 1997, with a likeness recognized around the globe and omnipresent commercial endorsements.
Yet, for all his triumphs and attendant fame, the February crash and its debilitating consequences were in keeping with a recurring cycle of fortune and misfortune — all of Woods’s own making — that will forever mark the narrative of his life.
At the height of his fame, in 2009, when he seemed destined to easily surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major golf championships — Woods already had 14 — news reports about serial infidelity cost him his marriage, and he was shunned by many in the golf community. His myriad corporate sponsors dropped him. The scandal caused him to take a lengthy hiatus from golf.
When Woods returned to competition, he struggled to find his old form, in part because of physical ailments linked to the obsessive, perhaps overly aggressive workout regimen that had been his hallmark. Worse for Woods, on the same golf courses where he had been greeted by wild cheering, he was instead met with an eerie quiet that bordered on disdain.
In time, he became a limping afterthought as a young wave of golfers replaced him atop leaderboards. Woods’s descent led to a defining act: a middle-of-the-night arrest in May 2017 that revealed an opioid addiction. The police took Woods into custody after he was found alone and asleep in his car on the side of a road with the engine running.
In keeping with his career arc, Woods’s resurrection was dramatic and irresistible.
At the 2019 Masters, he was not considered a serious contender. Yet as he played the last holes of the final round on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National Golf Club, Woods was rejuvenated. He played his best golf while his younger rivals wilted, birdieing three of the final six holes to claim his fifth Masters title. When he sank the winning putt on the 18th hole, Woods celebrated with a primal scream that seemed to be matched by the thousands of fans encircling the green.
Two years earlier, Woods had ranked as low as 1,119th in the world. His comeback, given his off-the-course hardships, is among the greatest in sports history.
While Woods continued to be competitive in 2019, and won one more event, the pandemic forced an extended absence from golf. In January this year, he underwent a fifth back operation that sidelined him. He hoped to return by April.
On Feb. 23, police determined that Woods was driving about 85 m.p.h. in a 45 m.p.h. zone on the winding Southern California road when he lost control of his SUV. Woods sustained open fractures, in several places, of the tibia and the fibula in his right leg.
On Tuesday, speaking ahead of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, a tournament that benefits Woods’s foundation, he briefly discussed the crash and its aftermath, which included the possibility that his right leg would have to be amputated.
“I feel I’m lucky to be alive but still have the limb — those are two crucial things,” Woods, 45, said. “So I’m very, very grateful that someone upstairs was able to take care of me and I’m able to not only be here, but also walking with a prosthesis.”
When asked what he remembered about the crash, Woods said: “Yeah, all those answers have been answered in the investigation. So you can read about all that there in the police report.”
In an investigation affidavit, Woods repeatedly said he didn’t remember how the crash occurred. He was not charged with any legal violation. Asked if he had flashbacks or recent memory of the incident, Woods replied: “I don’t. I’m very lucky in that way.”
Woods said he purposely did not watch news accounts about his crash while he was hospitalized.
“I didn’t want to have my mind go there,” Woods said, adding that he was in considerable pain, even when medicated. Asked if he was still in pain, he grinned and nodded.
“Yep, my back hurts, my leg hurts,” Woods said.
Woods appeared most comfortable when discussing what he can and cannot currently do on the golf course. He has begun playing some holes, but he said his swing lacks speed and power, noting that many of his shots “fall out of the sky” much sooner than they once did.
“It’s eye-opening,” Woods said and offered giggling support to a United States Golf Association initiative that encourages golfers to play from tees that can significantly shorten the length of courses. “I really like that idea.”
The comment reflected the arduous path Woods will have to negotiate to return to the elite level of golf necessary to play on the PGA Tour.
“I’ve got to prove to myself that I’m good enough,” he said of that effort. Referring to PGA Tour pros, Woods quipped: “I’ll chip and putt with any of these guys, but courses are longer than chip-and-putt courses. I’m not going to be playing the par-3 course at Augusta to win the Masters. You need a bigger game than that.”
But Woods, who talked about how the muscles and nerves in his right leg needed to continue to rehabilitate, was nonetheless optimistic that, in time, he could possibly improve his game enough to sporadically play tour events again.
“To ramp up for a few tournaments a year, there’s no reason I can’t do that and feel ready,” he said. “I’ve come off long layoffs and I’ve won or come close to winning. I know the recipe.”
He cautioned, though, that he was not close to that level of golf yet.
“I have a long way to go to get to that point,” Woods said. “I haven’t decided whether or not I want to get to that point.”
At roughly the midpoint of the news conference, Woods was asked if he wanted to play in next year’s British Open, on the 150th anniversary of the event. It will be held at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf.
“I’d love to play at St. Andrews, my favorite golf course in the world, and being a two-time Open champion there,” he said.
But Woods’s next sentence was perhaps most telling. He changed the subject to whether he would be able to attend the pre-competition ceremonial dinner for past British Open champions.
“I would like, you know, just even being a part of the champions dinner is really neat,” he said. “Those dinners are priceless. It’s an honor to be part of a room like that.”