When Tiger Woods limped off the course Thursday and withdrew after nine ugly holes in the PLAYERS Championship, my reaction was one of sadness. I am a fan of transcendent greatness, and at his best Woods played golf in a way it had never been played before. If it hadn't ended already, though, Thursday's painful performance pretty much drove home the point that the Tiger Woods Era as golf's dominant force is over, and it isn't coming back.
Woods may yet find a way to pull his body, his life and his swing together enough to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. Woods' career, though, will measure up to what we thought it might.
Woods, though, is hardly the first athlete to suffer a fate like this. Far from it. The sports landscape is littered with broken dreams. Littered with woulda/coulda/shoulda beens ... if only my body had not betrayed me before it was supposed to.
Many of those examples come from right here in New York. I have listed five below, and added a few others for good measure in a subsequent paragraph. Feel free to add your own names to the list.
Don Mattingly: From 184-87 the New York Yankees first baseman was thought by many to be the game's best player, and a lock to eventually be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His best season came in 1985 when he hit 35 home runs, drove in 145 runs and batted .324 in winning the American League MVP. A back injury suffered during the 1987 season sapped Mattingly of much of his power, though, and the remainder of his career was unspectacular. Mattingly will fall far short of making it to the Hall.
Mickey Mantle: One of the greatest players even, Mantle could quite possibly have been the greatest baseball player of all time if not for chronic leg injuries, mostly to his knees, that made getting ready to play a chore. The injuries both shortened his career and robbed him of the speed and athleticism that made him special.
Dwight Gooden: Gooden won 17 games for the New York Mets in 1984 at the age of 19, and earned Cy Young honors in 1985 by winning 24 games at the age of 20. Few pitchers ever threw the ball the way Gooden did, with an unhittable curveball. He began suffering shoulder injuries in 1989, however, and what looked like a certain transcendent career descended into mediocrity. Gooden had 100 career victories by the age of 24, but by then was basically done as a dominant pitcher. He kicked around for 11 more seasons, but won just 94 more games. Drug use was also part of Gooden's demise.
Joe Namath: The Hall of Fame New York Jets quarterback led them to their only Super Bowl in 1969. But, bad knees limited what he could have accomplished. He missed more than half of the Jets' games from 1970-1973.
Bernard King: Played for both the New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks, and at the height of his career was an unstoppable scorer. Averaged 32.9 points per game for the Knicks in the 1984-85 season and became the first player in franchise history with back-to-back 50-point games. King, however, suffered a devastating knee injury 55 games into that season. He missed all of the following season and played just six games two years later. He eventually did return and played four and a half more seasons, even averaging 28.4 points per game in his final season. King, though, was never the same dominant, explosive player.
Many other names could also be included on this list. Frank Gifford, the Hall of Fame New York Giant, lost two years off his career due to a devastating hit by Chuck Bednarik. The New York Mets Generation K trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson were much ballyhooed, but none ever became the dominant pitchers they were believed to be due to injuries. Brien Taylor of the New York Yankees never even got a chance, wrecking his shoulder and his 100-mph fastball in a barroom brawl after being picked No. 1 overall by the Yankees. Mark Bavaro's bad knees and the damaged shoulders of Chad Pennington and Mel Stottlemyre also limited careers that could have amounted to much more.
I guess the point is this, as it relates to Tiger Woods. At his zenith, we saw Woods play golf the way it had never been played before. For a variety of reasons, mostly the stunning breakdown of his body, we will never see from Woods what we thought just a few short years ago that we were going to see. That, however, is the nature of sports. We don't have to look far for examples.