Tiger Woods has come back from knee and back surgeries, from swing alterations and instructor changes, from scandal and humiliation. A few years ago, the author of the most dominant 11-year stretch in golf history even suffered from the chipping yips, causing the ultimate power hitter to occasionally squirt the ball five feet sideways like a weekend hacker.
On Tuesday morning, Woods drove an SUV off of a road and it rolled down a California hillside. News reports indicate that first responders needed an ax to free him from what the police termed a one-vehicle accident.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he underwent surgery on his legs. Officials said he was lucky to be alive, but that his injuries were not life-threatening. Those injuries, combined with his recent back surgery, would seem to threaten his future as a major championship contender, and perhaps as a professional golfer.
Woods' unique history prompts two reactions to this near-tragedy:
1. If anyone could defy fate and win again, it would most likely be Woods.
2. If any great modern athlete was going to have their career ended by a one-vehicle accident under mysterious circumstances, it most likely would be Woods.
In 2017, Woods was issued a DUI for driving with five drugs, including painkillers, sleep aids and marijuana, in his system.
His reputation as a disciplined competitor had been blown up in November 2009. In the summer of 2008, he had won his 14th major championship, and perhaps his most dramatic, limping around Torrey Pines on a knee that would require reconstructive surgery and beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the U.S. Open.
Woods was on pace to obliterate Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. A little more than a year later, he rammed his Cadillac into a tree in his Florida neighborhood, and his then-wife smashed a window out of the car with a golf club, following media reports of Woods' affairs.
Woods had won 14 majors and 71 PGA tournaments at that point. Since, he has won one major and 12 PGA tournaments. The career and personal upheaval caused by Woods' misbehavior may have derailed what should have been the most dominant career in golf history. Woods' accident on Tuesday may have ended it.
He underwent his fifth back surgery this winter and was not certain to compete in this year's Masters. The next obvious milestone in his season would have been a return to Torrey Pines for the 2021 U.S. Open.
Now we have to wonder if we'll ever see him competing or contending in a major championship again.
Woods is 45. Only three majors have been won by golfers older than 45 — the 1968 PGA Championship, by Julius Boros at 48; the 1867 British Open by Old Tom Morris at 46; and the 1986 Masters by Nicklaus at 46.
In 2019, Woods won the Masters for his 15th major, and first in 11 seasons. It was a stunning achievement, wholly unexpected because of Woods' litany of injuries. If he recovers from this accident to win another major, his career will enter the realm of fantasy.
And if he never plays again, his career will have been bookended by tournaments revealing his apparent personal growth.
He debuted on the PGA Tour in 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open, offering the made-for-marketing phrase "Hello, world."
In his most recent tournament, Woods played alongside his then-11-year-old son Charlie at the 2020 PNC Championship, with Charlie displaying a golf swing that would be the envy of many tour pros.
Having missed Muhammad Ali and only rarely been in the same building as Michael Jordan in his prime, the greatest privilege of my career has been walking within whispering distance of Woods as he won the Masters, and that U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and stalking him as he lost the 2009 PGA Championship in a Sunday duel against Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine National in 2009.
If he never plays again, Woods will remain the most compelling American athlete of the past 20 years because he made history while bouncing between sporting heroism and tabloid villainy.
Tuesday morning, Woods could have died, alone, leaving behind two children. Whether he plays golf again seems suddenly unimportant.