By Don Markus
My first inclination in hearing Tiger Woods had withdrawn after nine holes of the Players Championship was that he had tanked. Four over par after a triple-bogey 7 on the second hole, playing a course he's never liked, Woods knew he had no shot of winning and, perhaps, only a little better chance of making the cut.
So why not limp off with a preexisting injury, return home to his new Florida compound with its state of the art practice facility and get ready for next month's U.S. Open at Congressional? Even my 17-year old, a huge Woods fan, was skeptical of whether Tiger was really hurt.
But then I read the accounts of what Woods said about his knee and Achilles giving him problems -- the same knee that has undergone four operations and the Achilles that he had tweaked hitting one shot from under a tree in the final round of the Masters. I heard what one of his playing partners, Matt Kuchar, had said about how slow Woods was walking to his ball.
And then I started thinking about Ken Griffey, Jr.
Tiger and Junior have long been linked -- as phenoms who took over their respective sports at a very tender age, as friends who ran in the same circles down in Florida years back, and as athletes who fell just short of being proclaimed as the greatest ever because injuries derailed their respective careers.
It was painful to watch the down side of Griffey's career, flailing at pitches he once pulverized, watching balls that he used to chase down effortlessly or catch spectacularly sail over his head.
Just as his father, Ken Griffey Sr., hung on too long in order to play in the same lineup with his son, Junior hung around a few years too long until he tearfully, and thankfully, hung up his spikes.
But in not succumbing to steroids as many of his generation's great hitters -- and at least one dominant pitcher named Roger Clemens -- did, Griffey broke down on the back stretch like a great racehorse. It was tragic, but it was in a way heroic, given the manner in which Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all went out.
Not that Tiger's career is over, but at age 35, it certainly appears that Woods has little chance of catching Jack Nicklaus as golf's all-time major champion and arguably its greatest player. Four more majors seems like 40 now.
He is nearly three years removed from his last major victory -- the playing-on-one-leg sudden death win in the U.S. Open over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines -- and nearly 18 months separated from his last victory, at the Australian Masters.
We all know what followed. But as much as his infidelities sabotaged his image as a family man and emptied his bank account and took away his career as a billionaire pitchman, his injuries have served to satisfy those who hoped he would never return to form.
Except for a couple of brief blasts from the past, once during last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where a decade before he had obliterated the field by 15 shots, and again in the final round this year at Augusta, the Woods we have seen for the past two years is the byproduct of too many body-contorting swings and, perhaps, one too many swing changes.
Having covered golf for years, I know the history that speaks of players who have won majors past the age of 35. But for each Ben Hogan, whose life was nearly ended in a tragic car accident before he even built his legend by winning his first major at age 36, there are countless more players who didn't come close to sniffing another major once they hit that age.
But when I look at Woods these days, I don't think of Tom Watson or Arnold Palmer as much as I do of Ken Griffey Jr.
Just as Junior seemed to be on his way to shattering the records of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, only to have his body betray him, I think Tiger has reached the same juncture.
Given the rumors that swirled around Woods and the Canadian doctor who had reportedly treated him with what was called a blood-spinning procedure, let's hope that Woods doesn't get swayed as Bonds and the rest of baseball's cheaters did in keeping alive his pursuit of Nicklaus's record of 18 majors.
At 14 majors and no longer counting, being golf's Ken Griffey Jr. is not such a bad thing.