If turning 40 is a moment in life where most people pause and reflect, imagine what must be going through the mind of Tiger Woods upon reaching that landmark on Wednesday.
Barely able to walk properly and with no immediate prospect of resuming the trade that brought him untold fame and fortune, he has, by his own admission, been spending far too much of his time playing video games, surely the saddest fate of all since he used to be the face of so many of them.
His years to this point have unfolded like a Faustian pact. A man who had everything and achieved all that was humanly possible in his chosen pursuit at the age of 32, only to have every vestige stripped away slowly and agonisingly thereafter.
Right now he’s looking at the most uncertain of futures and, in a couple of unusually frank interviews at the start of this month, came across as fearful of what it might hold. There seemed to be an acceptance that not even men as driven as himself return from three back operations to reclaim their place at the summit.
The gift of hindsight is probably the superpower we would all choose if granted one wish, but imagine if Woods had it? If only he could go back and curb the obsessional zeal for fitness that is exacting such a heavy price now.
Less excusably, imagine if he had been able to control the urge to sleep with so many dodgy women that cost him his marriage, and the aura that was such a part of his psyche.
It’s still a stretch to say that even with those changes he would have overtaken the most daunting record in all of sport — Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 majors. He would still have had to have won as many majors that players as great as Seve Ballesteros or Phil Mickelson managed in their entire careers.
But does anyone who witnessed him at the peak of his powers seriously doubt he would have made it by the time he reached today’s milestone? Certainly not this observer.
Yet let’s hope this day is not filled with too many regrets. After all, in every other major sport, even the best would give their eye teeth to be the dominant figure from the age of 21 to 32.
During that time he achieved so many records and stupendous feats that he moved the television broadcaster David Feherty to proclaim: ‘He seems intent on replacing every great highlight reel I’ve ever had with one of his own.’
On a personal level, I count it among the great privileges of my working life to have been present at all 14 of his major championship victories, and many other remarkable moments besides.
Even the deep mists of time cannot diminish what it felt like to be there at his first major championship as a pro at Augusta National in 1997, when he went to the turn in 40 strokes on the first morning of the Masters and yet still ended up winning the tournament by an unfathomable 12 strokes.
A month later, we all descended on the Byron Nelson tournament in Texas to be greeted by sights that must have brought a sense of bewilderment to the ageing host.
More than 500,000 people showed up to see what all the fuss was about; from young kids taking a break from cheering on baseball and football heroes to brassy women swooning at the sight of the young and handsome star, but who soon discovered a golf course was no place to be wearing stiletto heels.
The record books show Nicklaus as the all-time No 1 because the number of majors won will always be the means by which greatness is defined. But is there anyone who was around during the Tiger era who would dispute he took the game to new heights?
I honestly don’t think there has ever been a golfer at his best who compares with Tiger in his prime. No golfer in history, for example, has come close to matching the preposterous 15 shots by which he won the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach — and even then he still mustered a triple bogey!
Not in my lifetime has there been a major staged like The Open that followed a month later at St Andrews where everyone, from his fellow competitors to administrators to the world’s media, knew who was going to win. This, remember, is the sport where majors are routinely held where you have as much chance of forecasting the winner by sticking a pin blindfolded in a list of the field as coming up with a supposedly expert prediction.
Yet here was Tiger, turning the most evocative major of all — an Open staged at the Home of Golf — into effectively a one-horse race.
‘There ought to be a stewards’ inquiry if he doesn’t win,’ observed Sir Michael Bonallack, the former secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, to continue the equine metaphor. There was, of course, no need for any such inquiry. He duly won by eight shots.
He was unbeatable all summer, as it turned out, winning the USPGA Championship as well a month later. On to Augusta the following April, where he won the Masters to become the only man ever to hold all four majors at the same time. It will be a major surprise to me if there is ever another. And yet, if you had to pick one victory to define Tiger the golfer, it would not be any of these triumphs.
Nor any achieved at those victory playgrounds at Bay Hill in Florida, where he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational on eight occasions, or Firestone in Ohio, where he was just as dominant in the Bridgestone Invitational.
No, the win that will always be his calling card will be his last major success in 2008; the one where it’s not much of an exaggeration to say he really did win it on one leg — and that after hardly playing at all in the build-up, for good measure.
When the 91 holes he had to endure were over, it was revealed that not only had he won with a fractured left tibia, but also a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
He started that US Open with a double bogey and limped so badly at times there were fellow competitors who thought he must surely be exaggerating, for psychological gain. But it proved no act.
Just the opposite, in fact; just a man who refused to lie down. One who rolled in a 15-foot putt across a Ryvita-like putting surface on the 18th hole to force a Monday play-off and continued to defy all medical advice and sporting logic until the trophy was won. Woods was forced to take a nine-month lay-off after that supreme act of will but it wasn’t that that killed him, in a sporting sense.
It was the revelations that followed on a fateful Thanksgiving in November 2009 that made everyone realise he was, in fact, all too mortal.
That beautiful golfing mind was never the same after the public humiliation that followed the revelation of so many mistresses, and now his body has apparently given up on him as well.
Now we’re left in limbo and wondering whether the last event he ever plays will prove to be at the Greenbrier club last August, where he finished 10th.
What a faintly tragic irony that would be; the course most associated with Sam Snead who, with 82 wins to Tiger’s 79, just happens to be the only man who has won more events in the history of the PGA Tour.
And so Tiger, at 40, will be like so many when reaching that age, looking back at all the promise fulfilled with a gentle smile and the mistakes made with a sense of sorrow. The difference in his case, of course, is the sheer scale of the feats he realised, and the regrets he accumulated along the way.