Like his talent, Tiger’s unprecedented downfall is one of a kind

Tiger Woods seems to be withdrawing more often than a gambling addict at an ATM. He was forced to exit the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday after just 11 holes. This comes less than a week after Woods fired an 82 in the second round of the Phoenix Open, his worst round ever as a pro. I’ve played with guys who have shot 82. I’ve played with guys who would be upset if they shot 82. While he was once a superhero, Woods is now scratching and clawing to even compete with the journeymen hoping to hold on to their PGA Tour cards.

The man we all once considered invincible has been having a career plateau unlike anything I have ever seen. In trying to come up with a decent comparison, I was struck by just how rare this situation seems to be.

Woods was once the no-doubt greatest golfer in the world and the inevitable owner of the “greatest of all time” label. He was on his way to certainly breaking and perhaps shattering Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships. He was so intimidating that a 54-hole lead meant that Sunday was pretty much just a formality.

But that same individual is now barely able to play the sport he once dominated. He’s putting up rounds that a weekend warrior may not even brag to his friends about. He’s breaking down so severely that just making it through Sunday now seems like it would be a huge step forward.

The last major Woods won, his 14th, was the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 — the same course he couldn’t finish one complete round at just three days ago. That’s more than six years since he’s been able to inch further toward Nicklaus. The 2009 Thanksgiving fiasco that forever changed both his personal and professional life is moving further away in the rear-view mirror, but he’s never really outrun it. Whether he’s been stained karmically or his priorities permanently shifted away from golf, Woods hasn’t been able to recapture the aura that once came so effortlessly. It’s almost as if his unprecedented gifts were removed that evening when both his car and image were smashed by his justifiably distraught wife.

Has there been another athlete with such a resume and so many prime years remaining to have everything vanish? Two names that came to mind were Bo Jackson and Roberto Clemente, but neither is really a fair comparison.

Jackson hadn’t yet built up the type of career that Woods has. He had a series of fleeting moments and limitless potential, but was not already considered one of the greats to ever play the game — or games, in his case.

Clemente had that type of career where he was already a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but though 37 is very young to pass away, his baseball life was past its prime. He wasn’t still on his way to once unthinkable heights.

Roger Federer, who I believe to be the greatest tennis player of all time, has slowly taken a complementary role on the world’s tennis stage, but he’s still pushing the top players. He reached one Grand Slam final and two Grand Slam semifinals just last year.

Michael Jordan voluntarily stepped away from the NBA at his peak — twice — like Woods did for a time in 2009. But Jordan first returned to win three straight NBA Championships and then came back at age 40 to still score more than 20 points per game in two seasons with the Wizards. We haven’t seen Woods show anything like that.

If he never picked up another club, Woods would go down as one of the five greatest golfers ever and many would still argue he was the best. But what we’re consistently seeing from him is essentially a man fighting against what he once was. And what he is now compared to what he once was is one of the most puzzling, upsetting, inconceivable and ultimately fascinating dualities in the history of sports.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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