A few weeks back, a group of campers at Immaculata University in Malvern, Pennsylvania played a round of soccer golf.
Most of the shots off the foot wedge—perfectly legal and encouraged in this iteration of the sport—went wayward out of the thick grass on campus, few coming even close to hitting the flag that served as the hole.
One young boy, however, nailed the target from some 20 yards away.
“Okay, Tiger,” a counselor in his early 20’s remarked.
“No,” the preteen corrected him. “Jordan Spieth.”
And with that, Tiger Woods lost another title. No longer was he the golfer young hackers—nay, athletes. This was a soccer camp after all—aspired to be. For all the medals Woods wears official and unofficial (14-time major champion, best player in the world) that one, the idol of all golfing generations, seemed the safest.
But this hasn’t been Tiger’s year. An embarrassing showing at the US Open was followed by a more embarrassing showing, considering Woods’ dominance at St. Andrews, at the British Open. Meanwhile, Spieth took the first two majors of the year and nearly stole the third, all at the age of 21.
Those innocent words uttered in the Chester County hillside one July morning only reinforced the notion that Woods has fallen farther than he, and maybe any athlete, ever has before.
He was once ranked number one in the world for 264 consecutive weeks. That record-number is not far off his current place in the world rankings: 278th.
In the past few months, sports fans have looked for a precedent for Tiger’s tumble. Some have suggested Muhammad Ali, who spent the last days of his career in a punch-drunk daze. Others have pointed to another boxer, Mike Tyson, whose defeat to Buster Douglas set off a series of events that led to ‘Iron Mike’ becoming more punchline than puncher.
Neither is a fair comparison to Woods. Boxing is a sport given to decline whereas golfers can and often do contend deep into their 40’s. Let’s also accept that the physical pounding of the golf course is significantly less than bouts on the canvas.
No, the athlete perhaps most similar to Tiger in terms of his precipitous drop in form is one who is still revered: Wayne Gretzky.
Before he was The Great One, Gretzky was the Next One. Like Tiger, he was famous nationwide (at least in Canada) for his exploits as a youth.
Gretzky turned pro at 17 and went about setting records and changing hockey at a stupefying pace. By his early 30’s, he held every major NHL scoring mark. Just a few years later, he was retired and far from the formidable point-producer that made him the sport’s brightest star. Consider that in 1981-82, Gretzky scored 92 goals, 16 better than Phil Esposito’s previous single-season record. From 1994 to 1999, a span of five seasons, Gretzky scored 91 times.
The Great One and Tiger hold another distinction that few, if any, can claim. They made their professions more difficult just by being so good.
Gretzky’s reign in Edmonton in the 1980’s ushered in a new, high-scoring NHL that was quickly countered by goaltenders and defenders alike. Patrick Roy popularized the butterfly, a style that put an emphasis on covering the lower portions of the goal, while his and others’ pads grew in size.
Defensemen, sick of chasing Gretzky and co., resorted to grabbing and hooking the attacking opposition. With new money invested in the sport, equipment companies improved skate and stick technologies, which meant more players could keep pace with the athletic elite.
At the same time, hockey exponentially grew in popularity, especially in the United States where franchises started to sprout up in the Sun Belt. Gretzky created future adversaries simply by taking the ice.
Without looking too deep, one can find parallels with Tiger, a child prodigy turned dominant young professional. Woods brought Nike to golf the same way Gretzky helped bring the sneaker giant to hockey.
Then came the makeweights to Tiger’s success, the “Tiger-proofed” courses, the rise in club technology, and finally those rivals from Rory McIlroy in Northern Ireland and Jason Day in Australia to Gretzky’s own son-in-law in South Carolina. Woods, like Gretzky before him, couldn’t possibly match the standard he set.
And yet, Woods’ decline differs from Gretzky’s in a few key ways.
Tiger battled nagging injuries and endured surgeries to his knees and back, while Gretzky rarely missed time. And although his marriage was front page material, the Great One never suffered through tabloid scrutiny.
Then there’s Woods’ game.
Two years ago, he won five tournaments and held a firm grasp on the world number one ranking. Fast forward, and two months ago he shot an 85 at the Memorial, an event he’s won five times in his career.
At his end, Gretzky retained the passing skills that made him an all-time great. With shanks, duffs, chunks, and flubs, Tiger resembles the weekend golfer more than he does the man who, at age 24, claimed nine victories, three majors, and finished in the top-10 17 times in 20 starts.
The results have left Woods in an unenviable position: the gulf between his success and failures has made him a prisoner of both. Does his solid play, such as a 66 at the Quicken Loans National, hint at a return to the Tiger of old? Or is it another sign of how far he’s fallen that a regular tour stop produces more positivity than anything else he’s accomplished this year?
If the answers are difficult to find when it comes to Tiger (Lord knows his own don’t help the cause), perhaps we should give up the search.
For Woods has been as confounding in decline as he was during his meteoric rise. Ask yourself what’s more believable, a chip shot from the world’s best player that barely carries five feet, or a towering six-iron out of a fairway bunker that flies 200 yards and settles onto the back of a green? Each leaves us in utter disbelief with the same how did he do that? feeling.
Tiger has always lived an unprecedented life. Some have seen Ali or Tyson in his fall. I argue that Gretzky is the closest parallel. None of us are right. Regardless of how he performs at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, whether he wins or misses the cut by 20 strokes, Tiger Woods has been a once-in-millennium figure.
No one, not even Jordan Spieth, can take that title away from him.