Woods resumes comeback, but if he fails, he should consider retiring

It's his life, not ours. If Tiger Woods wants to play in the Masters and risk shooting 90, the yips and shanks are on him. For one, I am abandoning journalistic neutrality to say I'm pulling for him to fare well at Augusta National, where he hasn't won since 2005, so long ago that his last green jacket has faded to chartreuse.

“It's obviously very important to me, and I want to be there,” he said in a statement on his website, ending a self-imposed exile from golf that started Feb. 11. “I've worked a lot on my game, and I'm looking forward to competing. I'm excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone's support.”

To say everyone is supporting Woods is folly. Vast swaths of humanity never will forgive him for his bimbo-boinking capers of the last decade, which exposed his family-man, Buick-driving commercial image as fraudulent. But even those committed to Tiger-loathing must acknowledge that his Friday announcement caught your eye, that the sport is drab and almost unwatchable without him, that we'd love to see him rival up against Rory McIlroy, that sports and entertainment in America would be best served by a dramatic Woods revival.

Besides, hasn't he suffered enough the last six years? Not even karma could be this evil. Whatever damage Woods did to the bigger universe with his sex scandals, do understand that the shocking, almost unspeakable demise of his game has stretched far beyond the parameters of all schadenfreudian retribution. His most recent visuals have been ghastly, not only for him but for those of us who keenly remember the dazzling showman and impenetrable competitor who won 14 major championships. Dare we wonder if his ex-wife, Elin, actually might feel sorry for him these days?

I do. As if he already didn't have enough hell in his life, Woods deteriorated into a helpless, hapless, aching, fear-shaken, glute-deactivated duffer stripped of his every previous power. No longer does his challenge have anything remotely to do with Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors, a task more apt for McIlroy, the sport's freshly minted 25-year-old king. At this point, with his body crumbling after five surgeries and his mind in quicksand after 20 months without an official victory, he seriously should be pondering whether to airlift himself from his misery and stop torturing a sports public that shudders when an all-time great shrinks into something feeble and unrecognizable.

We'll give him this Masters. We'll give him one last extended period to stay healthy and regain respectability. But next time a bad back or another injury forces him to withdraw — he has done so in three of his last eight events and six times since 2010 — Tiger might want to keep on walking and never return. Consider it golf's version of a mercy killing.

No one wants to see him go, but it's probably a much better idea than staying.

“Father Time,” as Woods noted, “is undefeated.”

The dastardly combination of an incurably bad back and a complete confidence crisis has reduced Tiger to a freak show. Recall his legendary short game? Step right up and watch Woods fight the yips; he is capable of dribbling a chip a few inches or launching it past the green, just like the rest of us hacks. Recall the chiseled-from-cold-rock physical specimen who revolutionized golfing fitness, the machine who seemed capable of remaining in his prime into his 50s? Not yet 40, Woods now says he has problems activating his “glutes,” which pretty much describes the pain in the ass his career has become.

“My glutes are shutting off,” he said earlier this year, “and it's frustrating that I just can't stay activated. Hence, it goes into my lower back.”

Muhammad Ali stayed too long and was pounded into putty. Willie Mays stayed too long, hit .211 his last season and fell down in the outfield. Michael Jordan stayed too long and shriveled into a circus act with the Washington Wizards, a far cry from the perfect, wrist-flexed ending that sealed his sixth NBA title in Chicago. Brett Favre stayed too long and threw too many interceptions, including a wobbly sext message to a female sportscaster.

Most likely, Tiger Woods already has stayed too long. But unlike the others, who eventually knew it was time to go home, he is liable to stick around for years. Please, Tiger, don't. “I just need reps,” he pleaded in February. “Eventually, it will start becoming more natural. As of right now, it's not, but when I do it and I look on video, it's incredible how good it is. But when I do it wrong, you see I'm caught right dead in between.

“My good is really good. Unfortunately, my bad is really bad.”

Sounds like his life story.

He was hoping to change his legacy, his obituary, the way his children and grandchildren and Wikipedia will remember him. But the only way Woods ever could alter a long-sagging narrative is with five more victories in major championships. Do that, and, sure, he'd go down primarily as the greatest and most decorated of all golfers, and secondarily as the cad who bedded porn stars, alienated sponsors, lost $750 million in a divorce and became a punchline-pummeled pariah who lost his professional way.

But before he can win five majors, or four or three or two, he first must win one. His missed cut at the PGA Championship last August means 26 such events — a period of six years and 10 months — have passed since Woods won No. 14 at the U.S. Open while dragging a double-fractured tibia and ravaged knee around Torrey Pines. In his last 20 majors, Woods has shot a collective 12 over par — and much worse in the third and fourth rounds when he happens to qualify for the weekend. In his last five majors, he is 31 over par. Physical issues aside, he remains a maddening head case at the majors, too wounded in the afterwarp of his scandal and still pressing too much during his four defining annual tests. As the sport that most demands a clear and purposeful brain, golf is merciless to those locked in confidence struggles, particularly in the biggest moments. Is mentally bankrupt too strong a phrase for a man who once performed his own choke hold on all comers, who played the game better during a commanding stretch last decade than anyone before him, since him and maybe ever again?

Seems the clock isn't only ticking for Tiger. It's gonging like Big Ben on bath salts.

The applicable word is sad. When an athlete reaches heights attained by only a precious few, then tumbles because of his own demons and health issues and can't recover, it's a sports tragedy. Before his booty parade, Woods was on track to become not only the best ever in his sport but maybe all sports. Now, he's sliding into bittersweet waters with the other cautionary tales of our lesson-addled times. His once-thriving brand is waning, and Nike, which stood by him during the scandal, now has McIlroy to promote and ride for the next dozen years or so.

If Woods escapes and retires soon, he still can leave his fondest memories in the forefront. A prime analyst position awaits him with the TV network of his choice. He's a loving father who cherishes his time with Sam and Charlie. His romantic relationship with ski champ Lindsey Vonn is still going strong. A fun, easy, stress-free life is ahead.

But then try to imagine Tiger without a golf club in his hand every day. A straitjacket might be necessary.

Of course, when he finally does choose to retire, a sport struggling with its 21st-century identity will enter a lengthy mourning period. Golf dims in importance and mass appeal without Woods contending in majors, and while McIlroy has emerged as a legend in the making, there isn't much else to excite the dwindling masses beyond a Bubba Watson stop at the Waffle House in his latest green jacket or a surge by 21-year-old Jordan Spieth. The sport dearly misses the riveting, polarizing, all-demographic drama of having Tiger in the hunt. Young people tend not to play golf because they don't have time for 18 holes in a smartphone world. Participation is way down, TV ratings are way down.

Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, recently estimated that Woods still has “a 10-year shelf life.” This is wishful thinking from a delusional executive who ignores Tiger's long injury history — cartilage damage in the left knee, stress fractures in his left tibia, neck and elbow and Achilles' tendon problems — and won't acknowledge that golf is in trouble. When Woods suddenly pulled out of the Farmers Insurance Open, one of his playing mates, Billy Horschel, said it all.

“We went from 600-700 people watching us to 50,” he said. “So we became chopped liver. We analyzed where we stand in the game of golf, and had a good joke about it.”

The joke isn't funny. Without Tiger Woods, golf just might die.

But it's a more tolerable option than having to watch his career die.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jamriotti@sfexaminer.com.

Read his website at jaymariotti.com

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