Tiger Woods was raised to be a champion. Groomed by a father who put a golf club in his hands before he could walk, Woods has been one of the most dominant athletes of all time since turning pro at 20 in the summer of 1996. His 14 major tournament championships are second only to Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18, a record he once seemed destined to surpass. But Woods hasn’t won another major since 2008, before his infidelities led to a high profile divorce from Elin Nordegren in 2010. His recent comeback attempts have been derailed by injuries.
Now, Woods is facing the very real possibility that his record-setting career will be over by the time he turns 40 on Dec. 30. Ahead of that milestone, Woods sat down for a rare one-on-one interview with TIME at his restaurant in Jupiter, Fla. With a bag of ice on his back, Woods talked about his desire to keep playing, his relationship with his ex-wife, why he and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn broke up, the highs and lows of his career on the course and his feelings about watching golf on TV (“I can’t stand it”).
Where are you right now with your recovery?
I have just started walking. That’s it.
You were just sitting all day at home?
What’s a day of rehab like for you now?
I walk 10 minutes on the beach. That’s it. Then I come back home and lie back down on the couch, or a bed.
Do you watch golf?
I can’t remember the last time I watched golf. I can’t stand it. Unless one of my friends has a chance to win, then I like watching it. I watched Jason [Day] win the PGA. But it was on mute. It’s always on mute and I have some other game on another TV.
Do you have any recovery goals? With past injuries, you have.
Absolutely. But this one, I can’t. There’s no timetable. And that’s a hard mind-set to go through. Because I’ve always been a goal setter. Now I had to rethink it, and say, O.K., my goal is to do nothing today. For a guy who likes to work, that’s a hard concept for me to understand. I’ve learned a little bit of it, I think. I know that, one, I don’t want to have another procedure. And two, even if I don’t come back and I don’t play again, I still want to have a quality of life with my kids. I started to lose that with the other surgeries.
Because you couldn’t do things with them?
I’ll never forget when I really hurt my back and it was close to being done, I was practicing out back at my house. I hit a flop shot over the bunker, and it just hit the nerve. And I was down. I didn’t bring my cell phone. I was out there practicing and I end up on the ground and I couldn’t call anybody and I couldn’t move. Well, thank God my daughter’s a daddy’s girl and she always wants to hang out. She came out and said, “Daddy, what are you doing lying on the ground?” I said, “Sam, thank goodness you’re here. Can you go tell the guys inside to try and get the cart out, to help me back up?” She says, “What’s wrong?” I said, “My back’s not doing very good.” She says, “Again?” I say, “Yes, again, Sam. Can you please go get those guys?”
What’s it like when you contemplate the possibility that you’re not going to be able to play again?
Anyone I’ve ever talked to who has had procedures like I’ve had, they say the same thing: you don’t know. With a joint, you know. With a nerve, you just don’t know. I’ve talked to Peyton [Manning] about his neck and what he’s going through. It’s tough as athletes, when you just don’t know. The most important thing, though, is that I get to have a life with my kids. That’s more important than golf. I’ve come to realize that now.
You may not have realized that a few years ago?
One, the kids were still young, they weren’t into as many things. Prior to that, when I didn’t have kids, it would never enter my mind. Are you kidding me? What am I going to do, go bass fishing? No. But now to watch my kids and play sports and to grow up and participate, and even teach them how to become better, oh my God, it gives me so much joy. I can’t imagine not being able to do that as I get older.
That’s more important than winning a golf tournament?
Absolutely. No doubt. My kids are more important to me than anything else in the world.
What do you have to prove?
I’ve done a lot more in the game than I ever thought I could. And to be in my 30s, and to have done this much? I never would have foreseen that.
You won 14 majors by the time you were 32.
I know. It’s frightening. I’ve had a good run.
Are you saying that if it did all end because of your injuries, you’re not so uptight about it?
Put it this way. It’s not what I want to have happen, and it’s not what I’m planning on having happen. But if it does, it does. I’ve reconciled myself to it. It’s more important for me to be with my kids. I don’t know how I could live with myself not being able to participate in my kids’ lives like that. That to me is special. Now I know what my dad felt like when we’d go out there and play nine holes in the dark.
How do you feel about the way the media have covered you?
There’s no accountability in what they say. And what they say, it’s like it’s gospel, there’s no source behind it. Nothing like, yeah, I talked to X number of players, I talked to this player, this player, this player. It’s none of that. It’s just, some of the announcers, they don’t even go on the golf course. And they look at a pin sheet from the booth, but they’ve never surveyed the golf course, even though the television coverage doesn’t come on until the afternoon. You have all that time to go walk the golf course, to see some of the early rounds, see what guys are doing, how they’re hitting it, how’s the course playing, is the wind coming up? All those different things that you could do. The only one who does that is Finchy [golf broadcaster and former PGA Tour pro Ian Baker-Finch].
How do you handle the speculation about you?
One, you don’t listen to it. And two, in today’s world, you don’t go online.
You don’t read what’s written about you? Was there a time when you did?
Not really. And that has served me well. It has served me well. Like my dad said when I was young, Were any of these guys there? If anybody has any kind of perspective on it, it would be the caddy. He saw the shot, he understood what the circumstances were. Other than that, there’s nobody else. So what’s their take on it? Who cares? They weren’t there. They didn’t see how difficult it was, what’s going on.
Nick Price told me years ago that it’s much different for you than it was for him when it comes to media attention. There weren’t nearly as many outlets back then. And no matter what you shoot, people want to talk to you.
Uh-huh. I went through a stretch, I think it was eight years ago, where I never missed a post-round interview. And the first time I did, they crucified me. I said, Realize I’ve done this for almost a decade. No matter what I shot, I always did a post-round interview. I did that for like eight years in a row, every round I played in, and when I don’t do it, they just killed me for it. I go, O.K., guys, put it in perspective here. How many guys get a pass for shooting a bad round?
How would you characterize your relationship with the media over the years?
I have a lot of good friends in the media. Guys I’ve gone out to dinner with on countless occasions. With respect. There’s also a flip side of people that I really don’t care for. Hey, they made their career being negative and being outlandish. They’ve made a career out of it. But that’s their take. They’ve almost created a character, per se.
Have you had to learn how to deal with the changes?
I have. Get me in the right environment and I can be myself. But if we go to a crowded place, and now everybody has their camera phones out, everybody wants a picture or an autograph—well, it’s hard to be myself when we have a crowd of people over us. You want to just hang out with me, but you can’t hang out. You can’t get a word in. Now the table’s crowded all around us. You’re having your dinner, well, you can’t—people are reaching over you to get to me. Now, is that fun?
Do you go out on your own? Do you have security?
We normally have security with us for the kids. It’s just for the kids.
You were at the center of the public eye when your private life was exposed in 2009. What would you have done differently before and after?
In hindsight, it’s not how I would change 2009 and how it all came about. It would be having a more open, honest relationship with my ex-wife. Having the relationship that I have now with her is fantastic. She’s one of my best friends. We’re able to pick up the phone, and we talk to each other all the time. We both know that the most important things in our lives are our kids. I wish I would have known that back then.
What kept you from knowing that?
Either that’s the position I was in, or I took advantage of opportunities. But, when it comes down to it, right down to it, it’s just having a more open, honest relationship with my ex-wife when we were married. Our frustrations would have come out if we had talked about it and been open and honest with each other. Which we are now, and it’s absolutely fantastic.