Tiger Woods, 38, carries a physique pushing 55.
The injuries pile atop each other, like a growing woodpile in the shed, and the odds of catching Jack Nicklaus for most majors – a matter of “when” not long ago – now have sunk below “if.”
Golfers respond to all maladies. “Beware the ill golfer” is a standard bromide. But golfers also know this: Back injuries stall, alter or end careers. The club can be swung with various sore muscles but a bad back stops players cold.
And deep inside that Sunday red shirt of his, Woods understands the consequences. He’s already felt them. His golf odometer has rung up excess mileage.
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Woods’ back surgery Monday for a pinched nerve that had bothered him for months means he’ll miss his first Masters after 20 straight appearances – since he was a high school senior. He built his fame on the storied hills and slick greens of Augusta National, where he’s won four times. His stunning 12-stroke win in 1997, during which he overhauled the golf landscape, was the “hello world” moment he promised at his first press conference after he turned pro.
Could this week’s news begin his long and slow farewell?
The answer is an indirect “Yes.”
Woods will not be the same again. The four surgeries on his left knee, injuries to both Achilles tendons and left elbow have robbed him of much of his power and – in some ways – his confidence. His bold and full swing, which used to send tee shots 30 yards past his foes, has been reduced to a three-quarters lash to protect his knees.
All things are connected in golf. One shot leads to another. Shorter and sometimes off-target tee shots, followed by iron shots not as close to the flagstick translate into longer and more difficult putts. Woods, arguably the greatest putter of all time 10 years ago, can’t hole a putt of importance on a majors weekend.
He hasn’t won a major, in fact, since that incredible June of 2008 when he dragged around a broken leg and still outlasted Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the U.S. Open. It was one of the greatest athletic feats of our lifetime, but it came at a steep price. Woods underwent surgery two days later. Willing himself to that epic victory has had repercussions that I think affect him to this day.
Five months later, Woods’ SUV veered sideways at his Florida home and Woods’ marriage collapsed in a well-documented series of personal scandals. On the course, his air of intimidation – next to no one beat him head-to-head – has vanished. Young pros, the youngsters Woods inspired, routinely launch it past him.
Woods held every conceivable edge for many years. He was more powerful, drained chips and putts and – here was the clincher – knew he was going to win. Tellingly, so did his opponents.
Even his five wins last year came in a different package. He had to putt great to win. That was not the case in the past. It’s to Woods’ credit that he can still be a heavyweight after he’s constantly reworked his swing and dealt with all his ailments.
It all caught up with him this year, clearly his worst to date. A Tiger Woods at full strength does not finish in ties for 80th and 25th. Even before he grabbed his lower back after an awkward swing at the Honda Classic, he struggled.
About that qualified “Yes” to the beginning of his end: Woods can rehab through injuries. He’s proven that. He’ll return and probably win. You don’t notch 59 PGA Tour wins, three away from the record held by Sam Snead, and 14 majors – four behind Nicklaus – by accident.
Woods’ motivation will come from all points – naysayers who think his body and his head have betrayed him and critics who point out that no one dominates after they hit 40. Woods fuels his fire with slights both real and perceived.
Another thing: The fans will root for him more than ever. They’ll support a fallen star who’s been knocked to the canvas and yell for him to get back on his feet. Dare we say it – Tiger the underdog?
Woods’ fabulous career already serves as a cautionary tale about everything from the pratfalls of personal behavior to bulking up his body too much. It’s doubtful that Nicklaus ever lifted a weight but he played 154 straight majors. History will duly note the career arcs of both Woods and Nicklaus.
That said, Woods’ absence at the Masters makes it a far less compelling Masters. Golf needs Woods, who changed the game the very second he walked to the first tee at Augusta in 1997. With him, golf matters to the masses. Without him, golf matters only to golf.
The game will manage this year without him, but it won’t be the same. And neither will Woods.