Birthdays are like the "born on" or "best used by" notices that appear on beer bottles and egg cartons. They aren't expiration dates as much as they are reminders of things getting older. Every birthday for a professional athlete must summon thoughts of a certain end to a career, and the closing of a journey that started in childhood. There might be ample success, but there will always be enough failure and disappointment to make each year more significant for its passing.
The years have seen Tiger Woods grow from a skinny teenage protégé to a manchild with a green jacket at 21 to a divorced father of two at 34 with 14 major championships. Even as his hair has thinned over the years and his body has grown weary with injuries, he is still a young man who has many years left of competitive golf. Tiger is old enough now to witness a generation of young players who were inspired by his play when they were barely potty trained.
His 36th birthday arrives Dec. 30 at the end of a year that was -- for him -- mostly disappointing on the golf course. In a year that was shortened by a knee injury, his only win came in a silly season event in a field of 18 players.
After nearly 100 worldwide professional wins and an estimated $1 billion in career earnings, he has more than his parents could have ever imagined when they let him appear on the "Mike Douglas Show" as a 2-year-old. He hasn't changed the world as his father might have hoped, but golf is forever blessed by his transcendent qualities as one of the most captivating and dramatic athletes of our time.
What do you get a man for his birthday who seemingly has everything? You might start with the gift of peace of mind. The years have hardened Tiger to the sheer joy of hitting golf shots. It's fine to treat the game as a job, but if you don't love it you're probably not going to play well.
I will always remember something that Andy Miller, the son of Johnny Miller, said after he left the PGA Tour at the age of 25 in 2003 to do church mission work in Mexico. He said that one of the things that he missed most about the game was the simplicity and peacefulness of walking the fairways.
Sure we compete to win, but at what cost does our enslavement to outcomes hurt our growth as athletes and human beings? A few weeks ago, I interviewed a young man named Richard H. Lee, a recent graduate of PGA Tour Q-school. He told me that his mother-in-law had given him the best advice. "Welcome the ball," she said. "Wherever the ball ends up, just welcome the situation."
That's a good piece of advice for Tiger as he heads into the 2012 golf season. Welcome the ball.
Tiger's unbending way of doing things has worked for 36 years with monumental success. But it might be time to let go a little bit of the burden of perfection. The years should have taught him that perfection in golf is as unrealistic as the prospect of living forever. Even for Tiger, the years have had a way of humbling him to the precarious and fleeting nature of success.
So my gift to Tiger is the peace of mind that Andy Miller found in plush, green fairways, the accepting spirit of Richard H. Lee and the simple pleasure of just playing the game for the love of it. Perhaps he could use this birthday to hark back to the days when he was that little child who could hit a wonderful, piercing iron shot and then show his mother a bird in the sky.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.