By Sam Belden
The passage of time is the most transformative force in sports. It can turn a packed stadium into a sea of deserted grandstands. It can transform the most imposing of dynasties into shells of themselves and it can reduce former titans of the game into mere spectacles.
This past weekend, we saw two instances of legends going toe-to-toe with Father Time, and the outcomes couldn’t have been more different. On Friday afternoon, 14-time major champion Tiger Woods finished up a sloppy performance at the Farmers Insurance Open, shooting rounds of 76 and 72 to miss the cut by four strokes. Less than two days later, Roger Federer outlasted old rival Rafael Nadal in a five-set final at the Australian Open, securing his 18th Grand Slam title. These outcomes reflect the course of Woods and Federer’s respective declines as they have moved towards middle age.
Since his last major victory, Woods’ life has been turbulent to say the least. Dogged by injuries and personal scandal, he has won just eight tournaments since turning 35, and none since the 2013 season.
The Farmers was his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Wyndham Championship, and it looked it. His first round was especially bad, featuring a grand total of six bogeys or worse, including an ugly double on the 15th hole of Torrey Pines’ South course. On that hole he hit his ball way left off the tee forcing him to take a drop and settle for a six. In total, he hit just four of 14 fairways — the only encouraging sign from the week was a decent performance on the greens.
Federer, on the other hand, has been steady as he goes as he inches closer to retirement. Since turning 30 in August 2011, he hasn’t been nearly as dominant as he once was, but he has remained a formidable contender in the majors, making the quarterfinals in 16 of 20 starts.
Despite that consistency, though, Grand Slam wins have been hard to come by — before Saturday, his only title in the last five years came at Wimbledon in 2012. But Federer played impressive tennis against Nadal, ably using the fast court to his advantage and keeping his clearly gassed opponent on his toes by mixing in some vintage power. As Federer became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam in nearly 50 years, this will likely go down as the cherry on top of his sterling career, much like how the 1986 Masters was for golf great Jack Nicklaus.
What about Tiger? Does he still have what it takes to pull out an ‘86 Masters of his own? It’s possible, but again, time can be more cruel than any bounce on a golf course. It doesn’t take an expert to see that Woods’ game is all over the place right now — he doesn’t look comfortable with the shots he’s hitting, and he seems to have lost the killer instinct that propelled him to so much greatness in the first place.
If he is going to win again, then Tiger appears to be a long way off. But as Federer showed us this weekend, an aging legend’s last stand can provide us with some of the most compelling moments in sports. For that fact, let’s hope Tiger gets there.