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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Fulfilling the first finale

by Philip Martin | March 2, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

If we never see Tiger Woods play golf again, I will be all right with that.

The last time we saw him play was just before Christmas, at the PNC Invitation, a silly season scramble event he played with his 11-year-old son Charlie as his partner. Woods looked loose and happy; Charlie eagled a hole on his own ball. You could see the father's mannerisms and that at least some of the father's talent had transmitted.

I can appreciate the symmetry of the script, the wunderkind we met as a teenager all those years ago, playing a valedictory round with his kid. It felt like the final scene of a movie in which the flawed hero, having fallen and recovered and fallen again and recovered, arrives at a point of peace clear of the struggle, a place where he can attain perspective. Maybe Jack Nicklaus' record number of major championship wins don't mean more than watching your kids grow up.

Then we get the car crash.

I don't think you can help what flashes through your mind. Kobe Bryant. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Ambien. All the pharmaceuticals it takes to soothe a body traumatized by scalpels. You can stifle the expression, but you can only pretend you didn't think it.

So it feels like a relief to learn that he is alive and out of danger. That he was apparently unimpaired. That it was just a horrible accident, the kind we are all susceptible to. Woods was driving a little too fast; maybe he was distracted, maybe he was fatigued. Most of us understand how accidents happen.

Some have loudly offered to police the conversation about Wood's future, holding that it is obscene to think about Woods' prospects for returning to the game. I don't know how these people exercise such mental discipline; I naturally wondered if the greatest golfer I've ever seen would ever again be able to play golf.

Golf is what Tiger Woods does--we have a para-social relationship with him because of golf. There's something phony in pretending we only want Woods to recover and live a long life; anyone who follows golf understands that as a child Woods set himself some fantastic goals that he has come tantalizingly close to realizing.

If that mission--that quest--ends here, it will not be a tragedy, but there is nothing wrong with thinking about whether Woods will ever compete in tournament golf again.

It is not unprecedented for athletes to make comebacks from horrific injuries; Woods at 45 might be better positioned to return to competitive golf than Ben Hogan was at 36 when his Cadillac collided head-on with a Greyhound bus outside Van Horn, Texas--on a foggy February morning in 1949. Hogan and his wife were driving along U.S. 80 on their way to Fort Worth when the oncoming bus pulled into their lane to pass a truck.

"Honey, I think he's going to hit us," Valerie said calmly, as Hogan threw himself protectively across her lap.

His instincts were correct. While Hogan's left side was crushed--his pelvis, ankle, knee, rib, collarbone and shoulder were broken--Valerie survived relatively unscathed. (She was able to berate the bus driver as a "coward" and challenge him to "come look at" what he'd done to her husband.)

Ironically, the absence of seat belts--they didn't become common in American cars until the late '50s--probably saved Hogan's life. Had he not dove across the seat, the steering column would have been rammed into his sternum.

It was two and a half hours before an ambulance got Hogan to a hospital. The wire services reported him dead. Even though he was quickly out of mortal danger, there were fears he'd never walk again, much less play golf.

Hogan spent 59 days in the hospital. That summer he won the U.S. Open. He won six of his nine major championships after his wreck.

But Hogan never really played the tour full-time again; his post-crash record is all the more impressive considering that he played only about four events per year from 1949 to 1959. Basically he played the majors--usually skipping the British Open--and a few select events. Hogan might play at Greenbrier in West Virginia or Riviera in Los Angeles, and he was a fixture at Colonial in Fort Worth, but you could argue Hogan never fully recovered from his accident.

Woods has 72 years of advances in medical science and the example of Alex Smith, the NFL quarterback who in 2018 suffered a compound fracture in his right leg during a game in his favor. Smith's leg got infected, threatening his life. It eventually required 17 surgeries to prevent amputation. Smith returned to play in six NFL games this past season.

Could Woods recover to the extent that he could play golf again? Sure, he almost certainly will be able to play at a reasonably high level. Golf is not football; nobody is playing defense against you.

This is something that sometimes happens in sports: Tony Conigliaro was never the same hitter after he was hit in the face with a fastball in 1967. He came back and played, and like Alex Smith, was named Comeback Player of the Year.

But I suspect the beaning contributed to his death in 1990, at the age of 45. Herb Score always maintained it was a torn tendon in his arm, not the Gil McDougald line drive he caught with his face that prevented him from becoming the American League answer to Sandy Koufax (Yogi Berra picked Score as the lefty starter on his "Greatest Team Of All Time" team), but he was a different pitcher afterwards.

There are some who might complain that Woods' career is already like one of those Steven Spielberg movies with too many endings. Some think it would have been perfect had he walked off into the sunset after winning the 2019 Masters.

We're all a little too eager to declare people over in this country; we don't like to see Willie Mays as a New York Met or Joe Namath as an L.A. Ram. We somehow find it embarrassing to watch athletes who can't live up to the standards they established in their prime.

We're never going to see the Tiger Woods of the early 2000s again. That sort of excellence doesn't come around that often. I remember Jack Nicklaus' prime; Nicklaus wasn't Tiger Woods. He was a different kind of great, and if you want to argue Jack was greater, fine, it's all subjective. But if you're resting your case on the numbers--on Jack's 18 major championships to Tiger's 15--then should we assume you also think Bill Russell was a greater basketball player than Michael Jordan?

Partly from temperament and partly from training, I tend to root for the story more than the team or athlete. It's none of my business whether Tiger Woods embarks on yet another round of rehabilitation and redemption or whether he takes it to the house, maybe to resurface from time to time in that never-ending old timers' game they call the senior tour.

I'm all right with it ending with him fist-bumping his kid on the 18th green at a hit-and-giggle event on an Orlando resort course.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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