Thought for the Day
Don’t be irreplaceable. If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted
Should Tiger call it a day?
When he had time to reflect on his 18th and final major victory, in the 1986 Masters, Jack Nicklaus said that immediately afterwards would have been the perfect time to retire. He didn’t, of course, being unable to accept that that last, glorious day in the sun was an unexpected cherry atop a great career. No doubt he thought: ‘I’ve still got it; there might be more of these in future,’ but to those of us watching, his great golf was all in the past.
He wasn’t alone in believing he could squeeze a few more major triumphs out of his ageing body, or to continue past his sell-by date, because very few sports stars can contemplate ending their competitive career when maybe, just maybe, they might experience one more magnificent swansong.
In golf, only two multiple major winners in the men’s game have managed to take leave of the arena while still in their prime. Bobby Jones retired aged 28 because there were no more mountains to climb and also because, as the last great amateur champion, he had to earn a living. And then there’s Byron Nelson. For Byron, almost uniquely among major winning golfers, the accumulation of titles was a means to an end and not an end in itself. So when he had enough money to buy the farm he and his wife Louise hankered after, he happily walked away from pro golf at the age of 34.
If there’s a parallel to Byron Nelson in the women’s game, it comes in the shape of Lorena Ochoa. When she stepped away from the limelight in 2010 at the age of 28 she had been the top-ranked golfer for a record 158 consecutive weeks. In a seven-year LPGA career she won an astonishing 27 times, including two majors but refreshingly concluded that having children and a normal life were preferable to accumulating ever more titles – a decision she has never regretted.
Annika Sorenstam also called it a day when still capable of winning but at age 38 and with declining powers she didn’t quit the race at the top. Suzann Pettersen got it absolutely right, holing the winning putt in the Solheim Cup and immediately announcing that she was done but in truth she was also 38-years-old and probably about to quit anyway.
It is noticeable that Jones, Nelson and Ochoa are among the three most celebrated professional golfers to have lived – as much for their qualities of humanity and humility as their golf. Perhaps a certain modestly unassuming nature is a necessary pre-requisite to making the decision to get out while you’re still ahead. Ego-driven obsessives may have the bullet-proof self-belief to get to the top and stay there but such personality traits do not lend themselves to a contemplative assessment that the best is not yet to come but has already gone.
The adjectives of humility and modesty have rarely, if ever, been applied to Tiger Woods but one has to wonder if now would be the right time to find another career. He’s 44-years old and his body carries all the scars and injuries of someone who has been trying to hit a golf ball as hard as possible for nigh on four decades. His depressingly long litany of surgeries is testament to the punishment his slender frame has endured and he now plays a part-time schedule that is medically enforced rather than willingly embraced.
Of course, he won the Masters last year, and strongly contested the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, playing alongside eventual champion Francesco Molinari. For those of us who consider ourselves privileged to have been around to see one of the greatest sports careers of all, both events were to savour because it is clear that they represent a valediction, a full stop rather than a comma in a continuing narrative.
What am I doing? How can I write off a golfer who has spent his professional life doing the improbable and then the impossible? A large part of the reason is compassion. The man is often in physical pain but even more traumatic for him, I believe, is the knowledge that he can no longer replicate what he used to do so naturally. He can still hit the shots, sometimes for a whole round. But over four days, with everyone else having improved dramatically because of the near-impossibly high bar that he himself set, it looks increasingly unlikely.
I have not always been a fan of the man but as a golfer he has intrigued, captivated, astonished and enthralled me in equal measure. I would like to see him walk away while he still can rather than watch an inexorable decline during which only he continues to believe that major glories are still within his grasp. And in the unlikely event that he proves me wrong, and gets even closer to Jack Nicklaus’ 18 triumphs, at what continuing cost would those victories come?
Footnote. On a related subject, isn’t it time Phil Mickelson accepted the inevitable consequence of age and joined the round bellies on the Champions Tour?
Quote of the Week
Really, it speaks to how boring my life is that I’m not giving up this thing that causes me such misery. Nothing else interests me like golf. Nothing. I think golf is literally an addiction. I’m surprised there’s not a Golf Anonymous