Nearly every time, he grimaced. Even when the microphone didn’t pick up the sound, you could imagine the hiss and hum of his groan knocking against the back of his teeth. It was worst off the tee. The velocity of his follow through, the shift of weight to his left side, the crack, the wince, and then he’d hobble forward or double over. He frequently used his driver as an improvised cane, walking gingerly up the fairways. His week was accompanied by none of the usual accoutrements of his major championship routine — no hitting balls after the round, practice rounds limited to nine holes, his prowling reduced to limping. This was Tiger Woods, wounded animal.

In the years since, we’ve come to know him this way: our own one-man symposium on human frailty, what with the car accident and the Rachel Uchitels, the press conference and the divorce and the series of extended layoffs for healing and self-discovery. But these were still the glory days of the legend, and when night fell on Tiger Woods’ limping, grimacing performance at the 2008 U.S. Open, the legend was amplified. He had survived five days, 91 holes, a tenacious adversary, and the pressure of one of his sport’s marquee events, all on a bum knee and a broken leg. It was a testament to his solidity between the ears, his unrelenting determination to step on your throat and press down, hard. It was amazing, evidence of immortality even. What it was not was shocking: by the end of the third round, in which he unleashed the most transcendent, swaggering, stand-up-in-front-of-the-TV-and-yell-Holy-Shit six holes of major championship golf this side of Arnie’s Army, clawing out of a five-stroke deficit with two monstrous eagles and one out-of-nowhere chip-in birdie to emerge with a one-shot lead, it would have been difficult to find a single person not named Mediate who thought he’d lose. 

Golf, like other pastimes over which much ink has been spilled, invites this destinarian tendency in those who follow it. Every generation of fans exalts its own heroes, seeks meaning for them in the alignment of the stars. Parables are written, certain years studied for numerological signs. Nicklaus chased down fate on the back nine at Augusta in 1986; Palmer hitched up his pants and birdied six of the first seven holes at Cherry Hills in 1960; Hogan brought the monster of Oakland Hills to its knees in 1951. These are mythical occurrences in the history of golf, passed down with no less sense of tradition than Homer reciting The Odyssey. For a while it may have seemed to my generation that Tiger Woods would be protagonist of the same narrative, but the moment he went from the subject of reverent whispers on NBC to the subject of blaring tabloid headlines it turned out he would not.

And so what follows is equal parts paean, memoir, reportage, and morality tale, a story about what it means to achieve and then potentially to lose greatness, a tragedy of hubris in the face of those fickle creatures we call the sporting gods. For in hindsight it’s possible to interpret the tea leaves of 2008 differently. Maybe the severity of the injury signaled a gradual decline in his quiver of physical assets. Perhaps he filled his long absence from the game with the indiscretions that later came out in the National Enquirer. This could have been the tipping point, when his desperate desire for privacy finally unhinged him. In the end, the five days and 91 holes of that fateful June have come to seem one of those terrible moments in sports when the hinge of history swings abruptly, quietly shut. Of course no one knew it at the time, least of all the man we’re talking about here, a man whom fate had always chosen for the task at hand above everyone else. He won the most recent of his 14 major championships at that U.S. Open, and it is no longer inconceivable that he won’t win another. No one can know for sure. The narrative may yet reach what once seemed its forgone conclusion. Still, the question needs to be asked.

What if we’ve seen the end of Tiger Woods?

* * *

No athlete who has experienced the pinnacle of success in his or her sport ever thinks this is it. No one plans his last triumph to be his last, though of course there must be a last. No one who has ever reached the highest echelons of success wants to relinquish the feeling, which so few ever experience, of being the best. A top athlete is an addict, always looking for the next fix: like another cigarette or another drink, there’s always another win. Where the gods come in is in determining when and how the last victory happens. Will it be a great champion’s happy ending to the twilight of his career, or will he have to slink off into the sunset unnoticed?

This is true, I think, even of those canny enough to go out on top, those who know they cannot endure the slow slipping-down into honorary entries and syrupy nostalgia that arrives with younger, stronger competitors. For one who has staked a claim on greatness, the fear of failure may eventually trump the desire to win. But the decision to retire early still goes against everything they’ve ever been taught about sport and skill and the love of the game, against the mystical, inborn quality — the unshakable certainty that they can and will emerge victorious — that made them great in the first place. This phenomenon of the final victory forces great athletes to weigh the inevitable against the possible. That may be why early retirement is so romantically bittersweet, so frequently difficult for even the athletes themselves to fathom. Pete Sampras took a full year following his last U.S. Open win in 2002 — twelve months in which he did not play a single tournament — before finally announcing he was hanging it up. Michael Jordan retired four times from two sports (twice following championship three-peats, twice after ignominious defeats), apparently unable to accept losing about as much as he was unable to accept not competing. Brett Favre has continued apace on this very path, convinced he can have another golden season while simultaneously telling us this is it. That his lackluster play and off-the-field antics have left him looking the fool is the saddest part of all. You can almost sense the inner crisis he’s so publicly facing, and wish you could go back in time to warn him. Walk away.

Rare is the great athlete who does simply that. It happens most often in one of those punishing Olympic sports for the very young, like figure skating or gymnastics, where it’s possible to be over the hill at 20 and your reason for being comes along only once every four years. Case in point: Tara Lipinski, who may even have had another shot at the Olympics following her gold medal upset of Michelle Kwan in Nagano, cashed in at 15 (!) to join the professional ranks, her sport’s equivalent of a Kentucky Derby winner being put out to pasture. This is partly attributable, clearly, to the immense physical strains of these sports. You can only be strong, small, and lithe for so long, can only throw yourself against the vault or the ice so many times before it all starts to break down.

But maybe Lipinski had a crystal ball, too, and saw in her most formidable rival the thing she most feared. Maybe all athletes who leave at the height of their powers know this instinctively — that the only thing more painful than leaving now is leaving then, when you’ve exposed yourself once more to heartbreak and may not, this time at least, defeat it. In this vein, Michelle Kwan’s is the quintessential story of success and failure’s uneasy marriage. Whether you think it on balance a happy story or a sad one depends on your most basic constitution as a fan: do you believe in the sporting gods or not?

Michelle Kwan was, and remains, the most decorated American figure skater in history. She claimed five world championships, a record nine U.S. championships (including eight consecutively, from 1998 to 2005), a record 42 titles, and a record 35 perfect 6.0s at Nationals. The next skater on the list received only nine. She dominated her sport in nearly every international competition for a decade — you could count the number of times she finished off the podium on one hand — except for one event, the one title she never captured. At the Olympics the mechanical consistency with which she paired her magical artistry seemed ever to melt away.

Watch her long programs from Nagano and Salt Lake City on YouTube and compare them to the air of inevitability she carries in nearly every other performance. In the Olympic renditions there’s a surprising fragility, a worrying timidity. There’s no real height to the jumps. The footwork is somehow constrained. As she comes out on the ice, gently kissing her father on the cheek, you can almost hear her think. This is my time. The moment of hesitation before her fate crystallizes confirms what I’ve always suspected about confidence, that it is an almost brainless state, something that runs unconsciously under the shiver of skin. Or not, as the case may be: in her hesitation she is no longer brainless. The confidence visibly drains away. She tilts, lands short, tumbles awkwardly to the side, hand down on the ice like a sacrificial offering. And that’s all she wrote.

For Michelle Kwan, the answer to the question of when and how the last big win would arrive was a resounding “never,” the most painful answer of all. Indeed, examples of truly great athletes forever thwarted in their quest for “the Big One” are legion. To name but two: Jim Kelly, who lost four consecutive Super Bowls with the Bills despite a career in which he threw for more than 35,000 yards; and Teddy Ballgame, whose heroic stature, four MVP awards, and two Triple Crowns could never be traded in for a World Series. The niggling injustice of these failures is qualitatively different from Sampras losing to 145-ranked George Bastl in his final Wimbledon or Favre’s Vikings losing to the Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship. It is, to paraphrase the old saying, better to have won and lost than never to have won at all. But at work behind all these events, no matter their core character, is some capricious karmic force. Describing Ted Williams’ refusal to acknowledge the fans after his final Fenway at-bat, in 1960, John Updike famously noted that “gods do not answer letters.” And sometimes they don’t — not ours, and not Ted Williams’ either.

What all this has to do with Tiger Woods may be singular to me. For a long time I shared with many the foreordained sense that his march toward Nicklaus’ record, golf’s Holy Grail, was unstoppable. Now it seems just as likely that he’ll fade away in a slow trundle of scandal and knee pain. Maybe he deserves it. Maybe someone should have warned him to be nicer, to clean up his act, to walk away. The sadness I feel is not for him, you see — he’s never been likable, now even less so — but for the way in which we wake up one day and the athletes of our generation are no longer around. I want, in the final estimation, not to have missed it, that last shimmer of greatness, just because I wasn’t looking.

It should be noted here that I believe desperately in the sporting gods. I believe in the cosmic meaning of comebacks and miracles and final victories. I believe in Torvill and Dean’s perfect score for “Bolero.” I believe in Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 after 20 attempts, just as I believe in Brandi Chastain’s sports bra or Magic’s sky hook. I believe in Ivanisevic on Centre Court, in the Red Sox battling from three games down against the Yankees, in Kerri Strug nailing the landing on one foot. Just often enough my fervent devotion and loud bright prayers pay off, and I am tricked into believing that Michelle Kwan, through some intercession of a higher power, saves the triple flip, takes the program by the neck, and goes on to win, though of course she does not.

It turns out that I have no direct line to the heavens. My letters to the gods go unanswered, too. That this fact frequently leaves me depressed is perhaps not uncommon: I remember now that Jimmy Fallon’s diehard Red Sox fan in Fever Pitch, finding himself in a similarly dark place, watches the Buckner game over and over, an eternal return of catastrophe. In the case of Michelle Kwan, I revisit her exhibition skate at the post-Olympic gala in 2002, a breathtakingly composed and graceful take on “Fields of Gold.” I watch it knowing that, going into Torino in 2006 as the favorite, she suffered a late injury that forced her to withdraw. In other words, I watch it knowing, as she cannot, that she has just missed her last, best chance. It is impossible, if you understand anything about winning and losing, anything about unrequited desires, indeed anything about the bass note of grief that pulses through sport as it does through life, to watch it without crying.

* * *

Most top golfers do not, in the traditional sense of the term, retire “early.” Even among the professional ranks it is not unheard of for players nearing 50 to win PGA Tour events, and many observers of the game consider a golfer’s 30s to be his or her “prime.” Because golf is a streaky game, in which a wily veteran with some knowledge of the course and a little patience can stare down the flatbellies and come out ahead, it is predisposed to the Cinderella stories of aging warriors. Gene Sarazen made an ace in the British Open at the age of 71, while Sam Snead, a comparatively tender 62, finished third at the 1973 PGA. In the 1998 Masters, the Geriatric Masters, 66 year-old Gay Brewer opened with an even-par 72, only three off the lead; 62 year-old Gary Player made the cut; 58 year-old Jack Nicklaus charged once more to finish sixth (two strokes better than defending champion Woods); and 41 year-old Mark O’Meara won the tournament by sinking a slippery sidehill 20-footer on the last.

The underbelly to all this good feeling emerges when these elder statesmen invariably fall short. Golf, it seems, is also predisposed to breaking spirits. When the sporting gods watch over this game, they do it with more than a little Schadenfreude. Witness Tom Watson at the 2009 British Open, initially just a feel-good sideshow to the tournament’s through-line. He opened with 65 in calm, sunny weather, but he had shot the same number to lead the 2003 U.S. Open only to fade away. A nice blast from the past, surely, but equally surely a 59 year-old with a balky putter, whose last regular PGA Tour win came in 1998, was not about to win the Open. Then, in significantly more difficult conditions Friday, he put together a solid 70 to share the lead. Things were heating up. All the ledes the next morning focused on Watson, though most retained the wherewithal not to get ahead of themselves. But when Watson went out Saturday and muddled his way to a 71, at an age when even golfers are generally known to hit honorary tee shots at the Masters, he was, almost inconceivably, in position to win. His lead was one.

And so it was that I found myself in a hotel room in New Orleans one day after moving there, and instead of exploring the city or looking at apartments as I was meant to, I sat on the bed with the TV tuned to the golf and prayed to the gods as hard as I ever have. Hail Hogan, full of grace, Bobby Jones is with thee. Blessed art thou among sportsmen, and blessed is thy one-iron at Merion in 1950. Pray for us sinners and for Tom Watson, now and on the 18th green. Amen. I thought my rosary of Aves worked: Watson, after a Glory-be-to-Nicklaus birdie at the 17th, came to the last with a one-shot lead and split the fairway. On the approach he lofted the prettiest little eight iron you ever saw, a ramrod straight thing that grazed the heavens and came down with the soft trajectory of a parachute, only, inexplicably, to take a big hop over the green onto an awkward slope. An indifferent recovery left him eight feet from hoisting the trophy.

You will understand by now that I am a sentimental person, though perhaps no more so than any other fan. Sports make me pray, cry, groan, laugh, cheer. If you have read this far you are likely the same way. You, like me, believe that Watson cans the putt. You believe it just as you believe that Zola Budd gives Mary Decker enough room to run, or that Gilles Villeneuve wins the Formula 1 World Championship in what will turn out to be his last attempt. You believe, in some deep, dark cranny of your soul, that Buckner fields the grounder, the Bills win the Super Bowl, and Jan Novotna holds serve once — please, just one fucking time — against Steffi Graf at Wimbledon.

This is insane. But my faith in the gods is not about empirical evidence or always being satisfied with the outcome. It’s an ongoing search for moments of real feeling, for some small piece of evidence, in an age of steroids, sexual indiscretions, tomfoolery, and greed, that there is still to be found in sport an element of inspiration or compassion, of resilience or transformation or unalloyed skill. This faith, like any faith, must be disappointed from time to time. The gods test us as Abraham and Noah were tested, to make sure we’re still listening.

Needless to say, Watson missed. I did not see the four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink that followed, which Watson, clearly exhausted, lost by six shots — not because I turned off the television in disgust, though that would have been an acceptable reaction, but because I cried so hard I couldn’t see the screen through the blur of tears. It is painful to watch Watson come so close to winning and then fail because you have just witnessed the last, best chance slip past once more. The only reason you keep coming back is for that rare case when the gods will be with you, for the chill that runs down your spine as your belief pays off, and the Giants win the pennant, Bannister breaks four minutes, or Nicklaus raises his putter.

Fallon’s character in Fever Pitch, you see, doesn’t torture himself with that Game Six train wreck because he needs to remember what happened. He could give you a play-by-play not just of that fateful grounder but of the entire game, the whole season. And though he may find some release in the pain of reliving it, like a guy who looks at pictures of his ex on Facebook after the breakup, there’s more to it than that. He’s studying it for something he missed, some clue that might have suggested 1986 would be the last, best chance. (Fallon’s character, as he rewinds the Buckner tape, cannot predict that this will be the year. The movie was still shooting in Boston as the Sox captured the Series in ’04, an occurrence so unexpected as to require the filmmakers to re-write the ending.) This phenomenon is suggestive of how much we shape the narrative, imbuing missed opportunities and last-second collapses with a power far beyond their actual consequence.

Sports fans understand intuitively what T.S. Eliot meant when he asked, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” When the Sox finally won, the infield error became merely irksome and embarrassing: Buckner returned to Fenway in 2007 to a standing ovation, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And if Kwan had come back at Torino and won gold, the gala skate in Salt Lake would be just another exhibition, a little sad but ultimately redeemable.

Knowing what I know now, it is thus impossible not to read those five days in June 2008 for signs of a counter-narrative. The tournament, for instance, was staged at Torrey Pines that week, a place Woods first played at the age of eight, where he had won everything from the Junior Golf World Championships to six PGA Tour titles. At the time this was interpreted as a sort of home-field advantage, the one thing Woods had going for him given his lingering soreness following arthroscopic surgery in April. But it strikes me now that when the gods decide it’s time for one of the great practitioners to take a bow, it usually happens at a venue with such personal or historical significance. Palmer and Nicklaus, who practically owned Augusta National through the sixties and seventies, won their last majors at the Masters; Sampras beat Agassi in Flushing, a nostalgic all-American final at the headquarters of the USTA; the 1996 U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team had their improbable triumph on home soil in Atlanta.

Other aspects of the 91 holes at Torrey Pines begin to look suspect. It seems significant in retrospect that Woods opened his first round with a screaming low hook into the thick rough en route to a double bogey. The scratchiness of his play the entire week was uncharacteristic: just one year prior, he had won the PGA Championship at narrow, twisty Southern Hills with a four-day clinic in precision and discipline. Indeed, most of Woods’ major victories had either been runaways or plodding marches, in which he would play spectacularly for three rounds and spend the last round watching his opponents fumble. He hadn’t ever needed the heroics he displayed in San Diego on those last three days, rounds that were less dazzling than gruesomely compelling, full of obscure premonitions and tricky red herrings.

At the time, though, I was blissfully unaware of these. That Sunday, a vivid flesh-memory of goosebumps and nail-biting, gathered to it all the great themes of sport: the plucky underdog and the immortal-in-waiting, the sudden momentum shifts and the last-ditch efforts, the weight of the occasion and the basic simplicity of the task. In the face of the biggest opportunity in his long career, Rocco Mediate, a motor-mouth journeyman who once considered quitting the game because of recurring back pain, had stared down the best golfer on Earth. Now, standing on the last tee, Woods needed a birdie to force an 18-hole playoff the next morning. What followed took perhaps 20 minutes, but in my mind it feels more like an hour. You had Woods gritting his teeth once more, sending his wayward drive into the fairway bunker. You had the iffy lie in the sand and the requisite lay-up, which Woods guided into intermediate rough about 100 yards from the hole. You had a middling wedge to 15 feet, the massive crowd applauding, Mediate standing by with the on-course reporter for NBC. The putt would be speedy, downhill and double breaking, over a green pockmarked by four days of competition. As Woods stood over the ball, 20,000 spectators stood in silence befitting a funeral Mass, and then he pulled the putter back.

I realize now that I may have been misreading the script. We cannot know in advance what knowledge we’ll end up using to shape the narrative, that instead of quietly assuming his place in history our hero will canoodle with strippers and divorce his wife and begin losing the kind of golf tournaments he always used to win. We’re pretty far into the story now, and with each injury layoff and lost endorsement it gets harder to turn back. There will be, must be, a last, and each misstep only makes it more likely that we’ve already seen it.

If only I had known, I would have savored it more. I would have understood the meaning of the ball bumping over those last few feet of ground, the cosmic import of the crowd’s delirious roar as it disappeared into the hole, the history present in the eruptive motion of the fist pump. I would have held on longer to that indelible chill down the spine that occurs when the gods deign to answer our letters. In this way, sports are a lot more like life than we usually acknowledge. The final victory is the sweetest one only insofar as, in the moment it’s happening, it doesn’t seem final at all. Otherwise, once the wins stop piling up and the narrative has run its course, the final victory is the saddest. Because you can’t go back.

Matt Brennan is a freelance writer, editor, and graduate student. His writing has appeared in L.A. Weekly, indieWIRE, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He lives in New Orleans.