Forty-five years ago, on May 13, 1971, Ben Hogan walked away from professional golf — literally.
This was more than two decades after a near-fatal crash with a Greyhound bus. He didn’t just recover from that crash; he won four titles at the U.S. Open, two at the Masters and one at the Open Championship.
Hogan knew a thing or two about dealing with adversity and overcoming it. He also apparently knew when enough was enough.
On that day, nearing his 59th birthday, he opened with an embarrassing 44 on the front nine of the Houston/Champions International event. On his 11th hole, he tweaked a leg injury while walking into a ravine and then withdrew from the tournament.
While riding on a cart back to the clubhouse, Hogan was asked what happened. “Don’t ever get old,” he reportedly answered.
He never again teed it up in a competitive event.
Monday’s news that Tiger Woods has withdrawn from this week’s Safeway Open doesn’t feel like his Ben Hogan finish. It doesn’t feel like this will be his figurative walk-off moment, if not the literal one Hogan endured.
Soon after the news became official, Woods posted an explanation to his website.
“After a lot of soul searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play on the PGA Tour,” he said. “My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”
Those don’t sound like the words of a man who is finished overcoming adversity. They don’t sound like the words of a man resigned to believing enough is finally enough.
There’s an excellent chance that this speed bump in Woods’ comeback is exactly that — a mere delay before he once again starts playing competitive golf, gradually improving with each event he enters.
At 40, Woods is a full generation older than current superstars Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, but he is hardly the age of Hogan when he stopped playing. Woods is still younger than Phil Mickelson, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els, all of whom won majors in their 40s in recent years. It doesn’t take the most optimistic mind to believe that if those guys can reach that level of success late in their careers, maybe Woods can too.
Of course, that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. As is the case with everything swirling around Woods these days, we don’t know for certain when he’ll next play — not yet, at least. All of which leaves open the possibility that this isn’t just a speed bump, that this isn’t just some delay in the process.
As Woods alluded to on his website, this is less about his physical limitations and more about some combination of technical and mental issues that is holding back critical parts of his game. Even he would admit it would be better the other way around. He’d rather have a physical injury that he can rest, recuperate and recover from than something that has no definitive timeline.
Woods can’t confide to the world that he will unequivocally be ready for the Hero World Challenge in early December or the Farmers Insurance Open in January because he doesn’t know. His guess is as good as anyone else’s. There’s more than a little irony in that scenario.
As Woods was, in theory, preparing to compete this week and the golf world was once again buzzing about his return, the highest intrigue stemmed from the fact that the player who was once the game’s surest thing is now the great unknown. We didn’t know how his swing would look, how he’d chip, how he’d putt, how his mannerisms would be. Apparently, neither did he.
And so our great unknown is now also his great unknown. Woods admitted that his game is vulnerable, and we can speculate that he himself feels vulnerable right now as well.
There’s an excellent chance that this isn’t the end of the road, that this is a speed bump on his way to a comeback, rather than his Ben Hogan finish.
There’s also a chance, small as it might be, that Woods’ walk-off is more figurative than literal. That after two decades atop the golf world, 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour victories and the domination of an entire era, this might be the uncelebrated ending. The great unknown might forever remain concealed.