Tiger Woods deserves to play (or not play) on his own terms

Is it time for Tiger to retire? (2:08)

ESPN golf analyst Dottie Pepper weighs in on the state of Tiger Woods' health and wonders if it's time he retired. (2:08)

You've all heard these words. Many of you have even said 'em at some point in the past few years, during Tiger Woods' 16-month injury absence or after any of his four withdrawals in his past 19 worldwide starts or after any of his anticlimactic missed cuts.

"This guy should just retire already ..."

Look, I'm not exactly optimistic about Tiger's future right now. I doubt even Tiger is optimistic about Tiger's future right now. His career has hit some decidedly low points in the past decade, but this latest development at least makes the list: Woods flew commercial to Dubai for a hefty appearance fee after playing at Torrey Pines last week, shot an opening-round birdie-free 77, contested he was pain-free, then withdrew before the second round because of a back spasm.

It has all led to a growing public sentiment not that Woods will soon retire but that he should.

Sure, there's a possibility that he's finally considering this last resort, though according to what his agent, Mark Steinberg, said afterward, it sounds much more likely that Woods will attempt to tee it up at Riviera in two weeks than hang up the spikes for good anytime soon.

And that's exactly what he should do.

If Woods feels healthy enough to play golf, he should play. If he wants to continue trying after repeated failures, he's earned the right and privilege to keep giving it a shot.

That's not the popular opinion. If he does play again soon, the majority will call him "delusional" for his efforts. They'll contend that he can't admit to himself that the Tiger of 20 years ago is forever gone (he can) or that he simply wants to remain the center of attention (he doesn't).

The reality is that Woods' perseverance through embarrassing performances and debilitating injuries is admirable. He could easily grab those 14 major championship trophies and hang out on his yacht for the rest of his life, far away from the competitive arena. Instead, he has chosen to try to play in the most public spotlight imaginable, with the entire world scrutinizing his every movement.

Once the world's most invincible athlete, he's now the most vulnerable. Once the answer to any argument about golf's most dominant player, he's now a fragile bundle of questions.

There's a sentiment that Woods owes it to us -- to the public that witnessed his meteoric rise and dramatic fall -- to preserve his legacy by cutting short this chapter of his career. He doesn't see it that way. He believes he owes it to himself to continue trying to compete against the game's best players.

He's right, of course. Woods knows, just like the rest of us, that he'll never again be the game's most dominant player. He'll never again own the consistency that once led to the longest made cut streak in history; he'll never again be No. 1 in the world, and certainly not for long stretches of time.

Every once in a while, though, he sees a glimmer of hope. A well-struck iron shot or a perfectly executed chip that leaves him believing the future isn't so bleak. He must, or else there would be no reason for him to continue trying, no reason to put his physical health at risk and his dignity up for debate.

And so, he soldiers on, even when the rubberneckers would advise otherwise.

I wrote this two months ago, in advance of Tiger's return at the Hero World Challenge, and still feel this way: If people in other careers decided to quit as soon as their skill set declined, well, we'd have a lot of empty jobs in the world. Doesn't it feel hypocritical for these same people to request that of Woods?

Among all of the accolades Woods has accrued in his career, he also has earned the right to stop playing competitive golf whenever he -- or perhaps more likely, his body -- dictates it's the proper time.

What many of those calling for retirement don't understand is that Tiger isn't trying to turn back the clock by playing again. He isn't trying to be the guy who once won four straight majors or the one who would routinely post more wins in a season than in most players' careers.

Instead, he's attempting to prove -- to himself as much as everyone else -- that he can at least compete again. He hasn't proved that yet, but again, it's admirable that he's even trying.

One of the phrases of which Woods has become so fond in recent years is this: "Father Time is undefeated." He understands his own professional mortality. He understands he's well into the back nine of his career. He's just not ready to head to the 19th hole yet.