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.