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Tiger gazes into his future -- both on and off the course

What's in store for Tiger Woods in the next few decades? The Champions Tour? More golf course design work? Even the 14-time major champion isn't so sure. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Perhaps it is his 40th birthday, one that typically gives more than just golfers a reason to pause. Undoubtedly the injuries play a part, too, as Tiger Woods is obviously unsure what the future holds. His back seems to not allow him to swing a golf club, let alone add to his legacy.

But recent weeks have shown a different side to Woods, a bit more reflective, one that recognizes the greatness he achieved and acknowledges it might not get any better.

Through the years, Woods has hinted that his career would not go on as long as many might think.

And yet, he has also pointed to the exploits of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46, Vijay Singh winning 22 PGA Tour events (including a major championship) in his 40s, and Tom Watson coming so close at age 59, losing a playoff to Stewart Cink at the 2009 Open.

It seems clear that Woods fully expected to compete well into his 40s, that he was not content with being a ceremonial golfer. He hoped to juggle that with a golf course design career and work with his Tiger Woods Foundation.

But what about 10 years down the road? Or 20? Even 30?

That, of course, would be difficult to predict for anyone. But given good health, Woods didn't shy away from the idea of competing when his 50th birthday rolls around in 2025.

"If I can, I will,'' Woods said. "If I'm able to prepare and do the things I need to do to win a golf tournament, then yes, I will.''

What about the Champions Tour? The tour for players 50 and older has mostly been shunned by the Hall of Famers of recent vintage. Singh has barely played senior events. Greg Norman played only a handful of majors.

For every Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie who has embraced senior golf, there has been a Davis Love III who (as of yet) has failed to do so.

Woods made the topic more about golf in general.

"If I can't prepare, I'm not going to play,'' he said. "I won't be ready to play and ready to win. Whatever level that is, Champions Tour or regular tour, that's irrelevant. It's whether I'm ready to play, compete and win. If I can't do that, I won't play.''

That could apply to right now, as Woods waits to begin the rehabilitation process from a third back procedure in 18 months.

Age 40 saw Nicklaus win two majors in 1980 at the U.S. Open and the PGA. And there are numerous players today competing in their 40s, including Jim Furyk, 45, Phil Mickelson, 45, and Lee Westwood, 42. Along with Thongchai Jaidee, Jamie Donaldson and Soren Kjeldsen, they are the only players age 40 and older ranked among the top 50 in the world.

And while Ben Hogan and Gary Player won majors in their 40s, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson did not.

It was always going to be interesting to see what Woods was able to accomplish in this decade of his life, even without the injuries limiting his abilities.

Twenty years down the road might actually be easier to forecast. You could see Woods getting more heavily involved in design work. And his foundation, without him playing regularly, would need more of his attention.

At age 60, Woods would still be eligible to compete in the Masters and PGA Championship (lifetime invitations) and would be facing his final year at The Open (which caps entry at age 60) -- unless he were to have finished in the top 10 in any of the previous five years.

"If I feel like I can't prepare to win a tournament, then no,'' Woods said when asked if he saw himself competing in those events even if he were no longer a regular on the PGA Tour.

Then again, Nicklaus and Player expressed similar sentiments, and both played into their 60s.

Two years ago, during his World Challenge event -- a tournament in which Woods shot a second-round 62 and lost in a playoff to Zach Johnson -- Woods was far more direct when it came to that question.

"Let me put it to you this way: I'm not going to beat Arnold's record,'' Woods said of Palmer, who played the Masters for 50 straight years. "I'm not playing that long, that's for sure.

"For me, I always want to win. So if I can't win, why tee it up? That's just my own personal belief. And I know what it takes to prepare to win and what it takes to go out there and get the job done, and there's going to come a point in time when I just can't do it anymore. I'm a ways from that moment in my sport, but when that day happens, I'll make a decision and that's it.''

Perhaps Woods will mellow on that topic as the day grows closer, and he acknowledged that finding a way to funnel his competitiveness -- something that has been part of his life for most of his 40 years -- will be part of the challenge.

"The foundation has escalated as far as my involvement,'' Woods said. "I have other interests in my life as well that are springing up. My restaurant [in Jupiter, Florida]. Golf course design is going well. It doesn't always have to be about hitting a golf ball and getting in the hole as fast as I can.

"If I'm not able to compete at the highest level, then I will find things that I can compete at. It might not be the highest level like the PGA Tour, which I'm accustomed to. But I'll find other things, other avenues to compete. Whether it's the foundation growing and helping more kids, doing things with sponsors, creating new business opportunities, or being involved with sports with my kids.''

Broaching the subject of 30 years from now proved far more difficult. Woods hardly knows what he'll be doing next week, let alone as he turns 70. A spot as an honorary starter at the Masters -- ala Palmer, Nicklaus and Player today -- seems inevitable, although Woods said he's not really thought much about it.

Could it be Woods and, say, Mickelson holding down those honors at the 2045 Masters?

"I just don't want to be fertilizer,'' Woods quipped.