Nostalgia for the Age of Tiger

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The most famous golfer in the world isn't as young as he used to be—and watching him lose at Augusta yesterday reminded me that neither am I

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Charl Schwartzel, the 26-year-old who won the Masters on Sunday, deserves his moment in the spotlight. Congratulations! That obligation fulfilled, it's permissible to talk about Tiger Woods, who finished fourth. Yes, I know, it's absurd that planet earth's most famous golfer so frequently dominates the story line of every tournament whether he wins or loses. But I can't help it. I wanted Woods to win at Augusta. I've wanted him to win every major for a while now, and to break the record he is chasing.

Why is that?

After all, I don't particularly care about professional golf, and although I care even less about the personal lives of pro athletes, the tabloid headlines didn't endear him to anyone. Still, I cringed when Woods missed his eagle putt on number 15, and again when he missed a tough birdie on the next hole. It quickly became clear that he wouldn't win the tournament, and that's when it hit me. Seeing him less than dominant on the home stretch gave me the same feeling as watching Kobe Bryant elevate less explosively than he once did, or seeing Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals struggle with injuries until it seemed that his best seasons were behind him. 

These aren't my favorite athletes of all time. That honor is always going to belong to Magic Johnson. What Woods, Bryant, and Palmer have in common is that they're the athletes I most associate with being my age. Woods, 35, is several years my elder, but given how old all the golfers seemed when I was a kid, his explosion onto the scene was a revelation. Bryant is 32, just months older than I am. Since he turned pro so young, and played basketball for my favorite team, his early flashes of brilliance marked the first time I conceived of a superstar being the same age as me.

Then there is Palmer. We were in the same high school class—that is to say, I literally attended the same high school as he did, and saw his phenomenal talent up close. During one CIF playoff game, our high school squared off against Tustin, whose running back, De Shaun Foster, would go on to be a standout at UCLA and is now in the NFL. He rushed for 377 yards and six touchdowns! It didn't matter. Palmer put on an offensive show of his own, leading us to a 55 - 42 victory in what an ESPN writer called "one of the greatest games in county history." Palmer went on to win the Heisman Trophy at USC. Would my classmate end up in the Hall of Fame?

The hardest moment in my life as a sports fan was when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. I was 11-years-old. He was my favorite player. I didn't understand why he had to retire. Then Linda Ellerbie was on Nickelodeon explaining AIDS and putting a condom over a banana. What I took from the whole affair was this terrible expectation that Magic might soon die.

Watching the downward trajectory of Woods, Bryant, and Palmer is hard in a completely different way. It makes me feel like I might die! Or at least that I'm getting old, a distinction without a difference. How is it that my contemporaries are now elder statesmen in the sports world? If the best athletes of my age cohort are a step slower than their younger competitors, where does that leave me? Sure, I'm still young for a writer. My own professional decline is likely decades away. Insofar as the career trajectory of athletes takes place when they're relatively young, however, they're like a window onto the future. Am in still in my early years of seemingly unlimited potential? Or my prime years of achievement? Either way, I face the certainty of eventual decline.

Yes, I could've gleaned this hard truth from any athlete in history. I witnessed the painful years after Gary Payton stopped playing defense, the bittersweet US Open when an aged but still scrappy Jimmy Connors dazzled with that yellow racket, and Michael Jordan's time with the Washington Wizards. But no generation believes it's going to share the fate of its elders. As Joan Didion put it, "one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before." It's impossible to maintain that illusion when peers are suddenly the ones showing their age. Dammit! Our age. So I admit it. One day, I too will find that I've peaked professionally—that what once seemed to me like unlimited potential turned out to have a limit.

Still, I hope that the athletes of my age cohort do not go gentle into retirement. For now, I want them to rage against it. I remember when I thought that Tiger Woods would win more majors than any golfer in history, when I thought that Kobe Bryant might well prove himself the best basketball player ever, when it seemed Carson Palmer might one day be a Hall of Fame quarterback. So I root for these players—for primes that last longer than we expect and improbable comebacks and careers that end without squandered potential or disappointment or regrets. If it happens for even one of them, then it can happen! Or so I'd like to tell myself for as long as possible.

Photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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