Looking at past legends' history could show Woods' future path

Tiger WoodsAP File Photo

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Golf is a game fraught with failure -- frustration far outdistancing triumph. Think of the baseball player who is deemed a success for getting a hit 30 percent of the time. In golf that standard is more stringent, with the best player of 2016 ( Dustin Johnson) winning at a rate of 13.6 percent.

Even within those weeks of tournament titles, there are moments of distress: penalties, poor swings, bad holes, over-par rounds. Golfers are always lamenting what could have been, few scores ever written down without a thought that it could have been lower.

So consider Tiger Woods as he is about to return to competitive golf after a 15-month layoff this week at the Hero World Challenge.

Woods has won 25.2 percent of his professional starts on the PGA Tour (79-of-313). He has missed just 15 cuts on the PGA Tour in 19 seasons. He's had 10 seasons of at least five victories and has 186 top-10 finishes -- nearly 60 percent of his starts.

Even before he turned pro, Woods had six straight years of winning the United States Golf Association's biggest tournament (three U.S. Juniors, followed by three U.S. Amateurs). He won an NCAA individual title. And he won dozens of tournaments prior to that.

Woods rarely tasted failure, certainly not at the rate expected in the game. Remarkably, he's finished in the top 3 in 40 percent (127-of-313) of his PGA Tour starts as a pro.

( Phil Mickelson, for example, is a Hall of Famer with 42 victories in his career. He's missed 78 cuts as a pro, and despite playing over 200 more tournaments than Woods, he has fewer top-10 finishes with 182.)

But now there is doubt for Woods. Considerable doubt. As his 41st birthday approaches on Dec. 30, Woods will try to play golf again in the public eye, one that is unforgiving. Every swing is chronicled, every hole documented, every round dissected unlike any player, ever. It will be no different at Albany Golf Club, where Woods will be the host for his annual tournament playing against a top-notch cast of players, including defending champion Bubba Watson, 2016 major winners Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker, not to mention Jordan Spieth, Zach Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.

No wonder even Woods has hinted at his own insecurities, saying last month before his aborted comeback at the Safeway Open that his game was "vulnerable'' and not at the level needed to compete against the best in the world.

All of which makes it fair to wonder if Woods is having difficulty with the idea of not being, well ... Tiger Woods.

"Most people just don't understand how mental and emotional great golf is,'' said LPGA Hall of Famer Mickey Wright, 81, in an email. Wright won 82 tournaments but basically stopped playing at age 34 because she had, among other issues, difficulty with the idea of being less than her best.

"They think purely about athletic ability. Tiger will always be the great athlete he's been, but for a while he'll be thinking about playing shots rather than just stepping up and hitting them. There are a lot of new good players who have built their confidence over the last couple of years who are in their early 20s and at their strongest. Big difference being in your 40s.''

Even before two back procedures in the fall of 2015 sidelined him for all of 2016 so far, Woods was having difficulty with his game -- and most of it can be traced to a back problem that first started bothering him late in the 2013 season when he won five times.

He tried to manage it through a fall in which there were a few hints of discomfort. He contended at the Barclays -- where he fell to the ground due to back pain after hitting a shot during the final. He contended at a European Tour event in Turkey. He lost in a playoff at the Hero World Challenge in California.

Rest and rehabilitation were supposed to take care of the issues heading into 2014, but after just four tournaments, Woods shut it down to have a microdiscectomy -- a procedure to deal with a disk issue in his lower back. Woods returned after just three months but has not been the same since.

In the 15 official tournaments he's played since the surgery on March 31, 2014, Woods has missed six cuts, withdrawn twice and posted a best finish of a tie for 10th -- and had two more surgeries.

Having shot in the 80s just once as a pro heading into 2015 -- at the 2002 Open in horrific weather -- he did so three times in 2015, including a third-round 85 at the Memorial and a first-round 80 at the U.S. Open. He took nine weeks off prior to the Masters that year to sort out chipping problems. At St. Andrews -- where he had won twice at the Old Course -- he shot rounds of 76 and 75 to miss the cut.

Ten years earlier, at the same historic place, Jack Nicklaus shot 75-72 to miss the cut by two strokes in his last competitive round in a major championship. Fans cheered him every step of the way, and he birdied the 18th for good measure.

"My biggest fear coming here was I didn't want to finish shooting a pair of 80-somethings,'' Nicklaus said that day.

But Nicklaus was 65 years old, not 40, and all knew it was his last round in a major. Few would have minded if he shot 90 -- such was the adulation he received as he played his way.

Woods is not being afforded that kind of reverence yet. He's at an age where he is expected to still be competitive despite all the setbacks. And it has to be unnerving -- even to him -- to put his game on display with so much going against him: the injuries, the swing changes, the lack of competition.

Bob Jones famously retired from competitive golf after capturing the Grand Slam in 1930, having won 13 major championships (when the amateur champions of both the U.S. and Britain were counted) in seven years. He was just 28 but had grown weary of the pressure and strain of championship golf.

When he founded Augusta National a few years later and began what would become known as the Masters Tournament, Jones was the event's top draw for years, with the expectation -- even from himself, briefly -- that he might win again. Jones shot numerous low scores in practice rounds and exhibitions leading up to his return.

But in 12 appearances, Jones never bettered his 13th-place finish in 1934, the first year of the tournament. And he never broke par in 46 rounds. "I grew nervous when I played in the Masters, and it hurt my game,'' he said. "It's perfectly obvious why. I wasn't keyed for the tension anymore.''

Jones biographer Sidney L. Matthew, an attorney based in Tallahassee, Florida, noted that newspaper headlines every year suggested Jones -- even though he played no other tournament golf -- was the favorite. From his extensive archives, Matthew noted that Jones wrote: "I realized that this return to competition was not going to be too much fun. I realized too that I simply had not the desire nor willingness to take the punishment necessary to compete in that kind of company.

"I think I realized, too, that whatever part I might have in the Masters Tournament from then on would not be as a serious contender.''

And from a 1958 "Saturday Evening Post" story that Matthew cited, Jones might have well been talking about Woods today.

"When your confidence is high, your reaction to strain is quite different than when you haven't played a lot of competitive golf, and you're not certain how you're going to react,'' Jones said.

"I was keyed up, but I just didn't react the same way. I had abandoned the whole damn business for four years and I couldn't condition myself mentally. If I was going to do it, I had to get right back in things, which I had no intention of doing.''

Annika Sorenstam, now 46, stopped playing competitively at the end of the 2008 season after having won 72 LPGA Tour events and 10 major championships. A perfectionist during her career, Sorenstam said she had to learn to not be so demanding of herself in her post-career golf.

"I was extremely dedicated and practiced so hard for so long, and then basically, I stopped completely,'' Sorenstam said. "It's only natural that my game will decline in time. I try to hit some balls on occasion before a clinic or sponsor event, but my expectations are certainly not what they used to be. I have moved on, and I'm at peace with my level of play.''

That is much different than what Woods now faces as a competitor. Throughout his career, he has been resilient and determined. Pride is a big part. Certainly, Woods does not want to play poorly or look foolish doing so, factors that must mesh somewhere in his mind with all the physical and technical issues he faces in getting a golf swing to work under pressure.

There is no more of an optimist in these matters than nine-time major champion Gary Player, who at age 81 continues to break his age and is a strong advocate for fitness and athleticism in golf. Player said he has not spoken to Woods, but he is confident Woods can be successful again.

"Jack [Nicklaus] and I both won the Masters in our 40s, so I have no doubt Tiger can, too, if he really wants to make the commitment,'' Player said. "I was always positive about playing well and being competitive as I got older, and I believed my fitness, determination and attitude allowed me to think this way.

"Frankly, I see no reason, as long as Tiger is healthy, for him not to do exactly the same. And nobody is pulling for him any harder to do so than me.''

While Nicklaus and Player had long, fulfilling careers, and Sorenstam and Jones stopped on their own terms, Woods' situation probably most mirrors that of Wright, considered by many to be the best female golfer of all time.

Wright -- who grew up in San Diego (Woods grew up near Anaheim) and now lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, (not far from Woods) -- has some remarkable similarities to his career.

She won 82 LPGA Tour events, surpassed only by Kathy Whitworth's 88. Woods has won 79 PGA Tour events, surpassed only by Sam Snead's 82. Wright won 13 major championships to finish second to the 15 won by Patty Berg. Woods has 14 majors, second to Nicklaus' 18.

And while it remains to be seen what is ahead for Woods, Wright left potentially years of competitive golf ahead of her when she played her last full season in 1969, due in part to foot problems, but also because of the competitive grind and the burden of being the face of the LPGA Tour. She won her last tournament in 1973.

"I was too demanding of myself,'' Wright said. "Playing badly was intolerable. When I was in my 40s and playing fewer and fewer tournaments, I found myself disappointed often. [That] had something to do with my stopping full-time competing at quite a young age. I really never played golf casually.

"If I could go back and do it again, I would hope to be a little kinder to myself and probably enjoy the game more.''

Will Woods do that? Can he? At this stage, after all he's been through physically, it might be his best path back even if success is judged differently now.

It is difficult to envision Woods being any type of ceremonial golfer or of him accepting of mediocrity. Can he live with the idea of only occasionally contending? Or finishing far back? Or missing cuts?

"His expectations may be hard for him to overcome,'' Wright said. "I hope Tiger keeps his expectations in check and can just enjoy hitting the ball and being out there -- would be a tad surprised if he could.''