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Initially, it felt less than authentic, cultivated as it was by their shared management agency, IMG and/or their mutual sponsors, Nike and Gillette. But the friendship between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, masters of their domains, in the mid-aughts sure was good fun. There they were, texting each other, speaking glowingly of one another, even having dinner with their significant others. This was Picasso befriending Matisse, Elvis joining Sinatra for beers.
Federer and Woods made a habit of showing up at each other's events, helicoptering in—literally—and watching their analog. When Federer won the U.S. Open in 2006, Woods and his then wife, Elin, sat prominently in Federer's box. A few months later Federer showed up for one of Woods's practice rounds at the Doral event in Miami.
The friendship had the ring of being genuine. Apart from their world domination and superhuman rations of talent, the two men had plenty else in common. Woods was married, Federer was in a long-term relationship with Mirka Vavrinec, whom he would wed in '09. Both had deep ties to Dubai—pre-recession Dubai, then the Monte Carlo for the new millennium. While Woods is almost six years older, both were in the meaty years of careers that appeared to have no limits.
A driving force behind the bonding, though, seemed to be a friendly competition over who would win more major titles, the coin of the realm in both their sports. Woods was on what appeared to be an inexorable march to eclipsing Jack Nicklaus's career record of 18. Federer was in hot pursuit of Pete Sampras's record of 14, a benchmark he would surpass in '09. With every title, they would text back and forth, tweaking the other. "We do needle each other pretty good," Woods once said. "But also, a lot of support. He's one of the first ones to always congratulate me and vice versa." For fans used to tweaking their buddies over fantasy league standings, this was delightfully heady stuff.
Their competition also gave rise to a spirited debate between golf and tennis coreligionists. Having exhausted the competition in their respective sports, which athlete was better—and, by extension, which sport was superior? When Woods won his first major, at the Masters in 1997, Federer was just a decent Swiss junior. Given that golfers can compete into their 40s, while tennis players usually hit their sell-by date around age 30, Woods appeared to enjoy an advantage. On the other hand, Federer soon became such a force that it was hard to imagine when he'd be dethroned. He not only caught up to Woods, but also overtook him and now leads 16--14.
It was around then, though, that time started to mistreat both men. Federer turns 30 this week, and it's been more than 18 months since his last major victory. While there's no shame in being ranked No. 3 behind the younger Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the field has finally caught up to Federer.
Woods's decline has been, to traffic in understatement, considerably less graceful. If Federer is not so far removed from the guy he was at the peak of his powers, Woods is thoroughly unrecognizable. Last week he dropped out of the top 20. He announced last Thursday that he would play in this week's Bridgestone Invitational, his first tournament in nearly three months, tweeting that he's "feeling fit and ready," but that remains to be seen. Next week's PGA Championship will be Woods's last chance of the year to win his first major since 2008. There was, of course, the humiliation of Thanksgiving night 2009 and the ongoing fallout. Concurrently, Woods's body has been staging a full-scale insurrection. He's 35 chronologically, but physically he's gone full-on geriatric.
Woods and Federer are still bracketed together, and the discussion is still largely about major titles. But the prevailing question goes like this: "Can either ever win another major again?" In both cases, the answer is "sure." Federer's window may be closing more quickly—how many chances does he have left? Maybe six? Eight?—but he's still a weekend regular at majors. Likewise, Woods may have lost his aura and his health, but not his talent. Still, we're a long way from just a few years ago when both men, using the other as a totem, could win three majors a year as a matter of ritual.
As the trajectories of their careers have changed, so it seems—sadly for fans—has the Federer-Woods friendship. When Federer speaks about Woods, he is, characteristically, benign, but it recalls Barack Obama's distancing himself from Jeremiah Wright before the association affects his approval ratings. (That Federer and Mirka have socialized with Woods's ex-wife, well, that says plenty.) On the rare occasion Woods talks about something other than golf these days, it's not to mention the texts and needling his tennis-playing buddy.
There is some consolation, though, as a new friendship among gods appears to be in the offing, this one greased by neither mutual sponsor nor agents. He was hard to spot, hidden as he was behind Dutchess something-or-other, shorn of an entourage, a security detail, or a trademark clothing line. But damn if that wasn't Rory McIlroy sitting in the Royal Box last month, watching Nadal and Djokovic play in the Wimbledon final.