Already in the final chapter of one of golf’s greatest careers, Tiger Woods may have penned a shocking end to that story on Tuesday when the winner of 15 majors was involved in a single-car crash and taken to the hospital with multiple injuries.
Battered by years of back and knee surgeries, Woods has recently spent as much time away from the PGA Tour recovering from injury as he has on the course, providing the golf world an unsettling glimpse of what the future might look like without its biggest drawing card.
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“I think golf has accommodated the fact that Tiger is no longer going to be active in attending events on a regular basis,” Neal Pilson, the head of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports, told Reuters. “I think he has lifetime exemptions at every major event but I suspect we are probably not going to see Tiger in a competitive golf event going forward.
“In his prime, it was clearly established if Tiger was playing on Sunday, numbers for Sunday coverage were usually up 25 to 30%,” Pilson said. “If he doesn’t play again, he will be missed for sure.”
Almost since the moment he burst on the professional scene in 1996, Woods has been the tide that raised all boats, a crossover star who drove television ratings, purses and endorsements to spectacular heights.
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With more viewers came more sponsors and larger purses, with Woods creating a new class of golfing millionaires.
That popularity made Woods one of sports’ richest athletes, Forbes anointing him in 2009 as the first athlete to reach $1 billion in career earnings (prize money and endorsements).
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Along with injuries, the 45-year-old has survived several scandals throughout his career including a 2017 arrest on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said on Tuesday there was no indication that Woods was under the influence of any substances at the time of the accident.
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If Tuesday’s car crash was purely an accident, and even if it affects Woods’ ability to play golf in the future, his longtime sponsors may stick by him, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Because of his historical success, there’s still value in partnering with him,” Rishe said. “There’s plenty of athletes who are still brand endorsers who have long been retired.”
For more than a decade, golf has waited for Woods’ successor to emerge from a crop of prodigious hitters and skilled young players, but none has been able to grasp his mantle or the imagination of the golfing public.
There were signs Woods had been on the cusp of passing the torch — and not to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy but to his son Charlie, when they partnered last November in the PNC Championship, a joint PGA/LPGA Tour family tournament.
The 11-year-old Woods showed he had some of his father’s golfing genes, from the twirl of his club to walking in a birdie putt.
The greatest golfer of his generation, Woods, as the game’s first African-American superstar, did more than rewrite the record book but changed the way golf is played and looked, bringing diversity to a sport that had been the domain of the white middle class.
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With never-before-seen power, Woods revolutionized the game, forcing gold courses, even iconic Augusta National, to Tiger-proof layouts.
While Woods appears to have another long, grueling road back to fitness in front of him, one of the hallmarks of his remarkable career has been resilience.
Former President Barack Obama wished Woods a speedy recovery in a tweet on Tuesday night, adding: If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to never count Tiger out.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Additional reporting by Sheila Dang;; Editing by Peter Cooney)