Only Tiger knows how long re­turn will last

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Doug Fer­gu­son

Re­turn­ing to golf was al­ways go­ing to be an eas­ier de­ci­sion for the golf world’s for­mer No. 1 Tiger Woods than know­ing when to leave. One week in the Ba­hamas is not go­ing to de­ter­mine that.

Re­turn­ing to golf was al­ways go­ing to be an eas­ier de­ci­sion for Tiger Woods than know­ing when to leave.

One week in the Ba­hamas is not go­ing to de­ter­mine that.

Woods turns 41 at the end of next month, and for the first time since he started this hol­i­day tour­na­ment, he is the old­est player in the field. Age is not the is­sue, though. It never is in golf. One of the great­est as­pects of this sport is that it can be played a few years short of for­ever.

At the elite level, how­ever, that’s also its great­est bur­den.

Golf rarely of­fers a grace­ful exit.

While it didn’t cross his mind ear­lier this week when Woods played nine holes with Derek Jeter in a breezy at­mos­phere punc­tu­ated by the oc­ca­sional nee­dle, it was a reminder of how dif­fi­cult it will be for Woods to leave at the right time, on his own terms.

Jeter knew when it was time to go, and his de­par­ture was right out of a movie script. He hit a gamewin­ning sin­gle in the bot­tom of the ninth in his fi­nal game at Yan­kee Sta­dium, and then he hit an­other RBI sin­gle in the fi­nal at-bat of his ca­reer and re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion at Fen­way Park.

Ted Wil­liams hit a home run in his fi­nal at-bat. Pey­ton Man­ning walked off the field for the last time as a Su­per Bowl cham­pion. Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his last game with the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers.

What would be a com­pa­ra­ble end­ing for Woods, or any golfer?

“I don’t know,” Woods said with em­pha­sis on the fi­nal word. He paused for a brief mo­ment be­fore adding, “You can’t.”

Arnold Palmer had the tear­ful farewell from the U.S. Open at Oak­mont in 1994, the grand cross­ing of the Swilcan Bridge at St. An­drews a year later, an en­tire week de­voted to his de­par­ture at the Mas­ters in 2004. His fi­nal time play­ing Bay Hill, he hit driver off the deck to the front of the 18th green and made par.

But the King quit keep­ing score well be­fore that. At the 2001 Penn­syl­va­nia Clas­sic at Laurel Val­ley, the stan­dard bearer re­moved his score from the sign and Palmer did not turn in a card (he would have shot 90).

Gary Player played the Mas­ters for the 52nd time at age 74.

“You would think that win a ma­jor and you’re done,” Woods said of the ideal exit from golf. “But if you win a ma­jor, you’re go­ing to want to come back and play.”

Jack Nick­laus never won again af­ter the 1986 Mas­ters he won at age 46. He never missed a ma­jor as a pro un­til the 1998 Bri­tish Open. Nick­laus played the Mas­ters for the last time in 2005 with­out telling any­one — he fin­ished on the front nine be­cause of rain de­lays.

Still, he man­aged a mem­o­rable re­tire­ment that sum­mer when he played a ma­jor for the last time at St. An­drews. While he missed the cut, Nick­laus birdied the fi­nal hole, raised his left arm in that pose made fa­mous at the ‘86 Mas­ters and said, “I knew that hole would move wher­ever I hit it.”

Woods isn’t ready to think about re­tire­ment or he would have left when he had the chance.

“If you love the game, you can keep com­ing back,” Ernie Els said when as­sess­ing Woods’ re­turn to golf. “Oth­er­wise, we can walk away. I have enough of ev­ery­thing.

“I can go do other stuff. But I still feel I can play de­cent golf, and I love it. If he has the de­sire — and I think he does have the de­sire, oth­er­wise I think he could have re­ally walked away this time — then you keep grind­ing and for­get about how good you were. “It’s where you are now.” Woods waited 15 months to heal. He has said his health is no longer an is­sue, and the fi­nal mea­sure will be this week at the Hero World Chal­lenge. His body has aged and his swing has changed.

The golf land­scape has be­come even more crowded with younger, dis­ci­plined play­ers who grew up in awe of him. They work just as hard, hit the ball far­ther and make putts that Woods once did.

Can he win again? Maybe not this week, but it would be fool­ish to count him out, ma­jors in­cluded. All it takes is one week when ev­ery­thing goes right. That doesn’t ap­ply only to Woods; that has been proven with plenty of play­ers over the years.

“Our sport, you see guys like Jim Furyk just shoot­ing 58, hit­ting it as far as he does. You can play dif­fer­ent ways and still win golf tour­na­ments,” Woods said. “You can’t do that in base­ball, foot­ball, basketball, tennis. You have your win­dow. And once you miss that win­dow, you’re done.

“You’re start­ing to see the end of Fed (Roger Fed­erer), and it’s sad. We can see he’s not quite the same. Same with Jetes (Jeter) af­ter he broke his an­kle.

“In golf, you can still have one or two great weeks a year and still win golf tour­na­ments. And if you win two golf tour­na­ments, you’ve ba­si­cally had a great year.”

It’s enough to keep him go­ing. For how long, not even he knows.

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