It’s worth remembering now that one of the first times “Tiger Woods” and “drugs” turned up in the same sentence, it was just a punchline.
That was 2007. Woods was still crushing the field at just about every event and the PGA Tour, coincidentally, was hammering out the details on its first formal drug-testing policy. In a lighthearted moment, then-European Tour CEO George O’Grady suggested his American counterparts could save plenty of time and money by testing exactly one golfer: Woods.
“If he’s clean,” O’Grady said with nearly flawless logic, “what does it matter what the rest of them are on?”
Flip that script forward 10 years and it’s Woods who needs drugs because his body is falling apart like a used car.
He’s had four back surgeries in three years, the last one just a month ago. We already knew he wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
He had four prescription drugs in his system when the police found him, including the powerful opioid painkiller Vicodin. He couldn’t tell the officers where he was going. “Nowhere” would have been accurate enough.
Predicting the end of Tiger Woods’ career has become a cottage industry. After his SUV veered off course at the end of his Florida driveway and the major wins dried up, the questions were about his head. But the rest of his body began betraying him before that. If his use of painkillers has tipped over into dependence, getting back to golf is the least of his worries.
“I think that he’s struggling and I wish him well,” Jack Nicklaus said Tuesday, talking to reporters ahead of the Memorial Tournament he will be hosting this weekend at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
He talked about being both a friend and a fan, and about wanting to see Woods back on a course someday.
“I hope he gets out of it,” Nicklaus said, adding. “He needs a lot of support from a lot of people.”
For the first half of his life, Earl and Tida Woods looked after everything even remotely Tiger-related. All he had to do from a very young age was play championship-caliber golf, or else be seriously prepping himself to play that way, everywhere and every time he teed it up. And for the better part of two decades, Woods did not disappoint.
Companies like Nike, American Express and Buick fought for a spot on his golf bag. He was racking up major championships at a faster clip than even Nicklaus had, and on pace to pass Sam Snead for all-time tour wins with ease. He seemed to have it all, waving back from a Christmas card one year with his blond Swedish model wife, two handsome kids and dog set against the backdrop of a mansion.
It hardly matters where you set the start of the stumble: the death of his father; the 2008 U.S. Open, where he hobbled off the golf course with the trophy and stress fractures in both knee and tibia; the post-Thanksgiving night car crash just past the end of his own driveway.
No matter. Whatever tripped the fall, it’s been a long, very public slide for the family man in that photo to the sad sack in the mugshot that topped just about every website and newspaper page at some point these past few days. If Woods has a problem with painkillers, it’s hardly a high-class headache and he’s got way too much company.
We’ve seen those same dead eyes in many mugshots before. Opioid abuse kills thousands each year and harms countless others who never make it into the headlines. And yet, for all the obstacles you imagined that could have stopped Woods cold, bottles filled with prescription drugs would have been nowhere near the top of that list.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press.