Probably the biggest news from a week ago was not Kevin Chappell hanging up a “W” at the Valero Texas Open after being shut out in 180 prior starts. Chappell is the seventh first-time winner on Tour for the 2017 season, making his breakthrough hardly surprising.
The news that did quietly hit the golf reports involved a couple of 41-year-olds and their futures or lack of.
By any measure of success England’s Ian Poulter is a tremendously accomplished player. In 15 full years on the European Tour, he was a 12-time winner. In 13 years splitting time between Europe and US, Poulter collected two American wins, both WGC events.
He has at least one top-10 in three of the four majors over his career, including a second-place finish in 2008 to Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale.
For American golf fans, Poulter is mostly remembered for his passion and performance in five Ryder Cups. The colorful Englishman was a significant part of four wins, compiling a record of 12-4-2 that is punctuated by never having lost in singles. If not the fuse, Poulter was certainly the fireworks for those European wins.
Over the last several months Poulter has been on the clock for the PGA Tour, not on the course but in the statistics. Sidelined midway through the 2016 season with a foot injury, Poulter had 10 events upon his healthy return to earn enough money or points to remain fully exempt.
He rallied at Harbour Town to put himself within range before San Antonio, but missed the weekend and fell short by just over $30,000 of being able to control his schedule. Now invitations, field openings and other factors will make his presence on the Tour not a week-to-week existence but a Monday-to-Monday inspection.
Healthy, and with enough stature to find opportunities to turn things around, Poulter was realistic and still positive leaving Texas. “What positives do I take away from this week? Well, it’s not — you know, it’s not all bad, right? I’m healthy, I’m playing golf. I’m still going to be able to play golf. You know, it doesn’t mean to say that the clubs are going to go away and you’re never going to see me again. Obviously means that I’ve got some work to do and I need to go — get away and do some work. I’m playing with Geoff Ogilvy in New Orleans. Who knows. Golf is a funny game. We could easily go out and win with Geoff and things are a little different.”
The other 41-year-old facing an uncertain future is Eldrick Woods. Tiger, as he was known in his glory days, let it be known that he had undergone his fourth consecutive back surgery and would likely miss the entire 2017 season. What was remarkable about the Woods announcement was the lack of attention it elicited in sports circles and largely in golf circles.
There was a time when a Woods release from his website would have made the nightly news. This time around it was just another notebook item in golf reporting. “The surgery went well, and I’m optimistic this will relieve my back spasms and pain,” Woods said on his website. “When healed, I look forward to getting back to a normal life, playing with my kids, competing in professional golf and living without the pain I have been battling so long.” Like so many responses at press conferences over the years, this was a pronouncement we have heard before.
Unlike Poulter, Woods will never face a rehabilitation time clock to return to the Tour. But also unlike Poulter, Tiger has no recent history to suggest that the future can be counted on.
For a player whose career was always about firsts, the focus now turns to lasts. He failed to make the weekend in two brief 2017 appearances in San Diego and Dubai. His sole 2016 appearance was as an assistant captain to Davis Love for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. His last weekend on the PGA Tour was 19 months ago at the Wyndham Championship, a tie for 10th.
In his last 19 PGA Tour events, dating back to the start of 2014, he has missed the cut or withdrawn 10 times.
There are serious doubts that Woods will ever find the health to make it back into the game. But concurrently, those doubts are compounded by questions about what such a return might look like. The last time Tiger won on Tour was at Firestone late in 2013. He appeared fully restored that year, going major-less, but winning five times. And one more last, it was at Torrey Pines in the 2008 US Open when he limped past Rocco Mediate to pick up his 14th and perhaps final major.
There was a time in Woods’ career when every time the bar was set he would raise it. For the moment, that bar is something Tiger doesn’t need to duck to walk under. Exiting his last major appearance, missing the cut at the 2014 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Tiger may have been prophetic in mapping out his future.
“What now? I’m going to go home and watch the leaders tee off and play. Probably in Florida. Actually I’ll go to my sports bar, how about that?”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.