It’s getting difficult to envision a healthy, successful Tiger Woods

Pained expressions, unfortunately, have become the norm for Tiger Woods.

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I want to preface everything I’m going to say here about Tiger Woods with this simple statement: I made it a point for most of 2015 to avoid the Tiger talk. Everyone brings him up when professional golf is the subject … columnists, golf reporters, bloggers, sports talking heads and radio hosts … even in the midst of the best stretch of golf on the PGA Tour since Woods initially burst on the scene.

Back then, watching young Tiger was a must, no matter if it was an epic victory at Augusta National or a first-pumping celebration in Phoenix. Woods made golf cool for the first time in a long time and he carried the sport to the place we are now. This new crop of golfers is doing the same thing. Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Danny Lee … it’s a fun time to be a golf fan, but all of this is happening within the shadow of a Woods return to greatness that seems to be fading with each passing day.

So why am I talking Tiger now, after the year we had with some of those names above?

Because the conversation has moved from, “Will Tiger win again?” to “Will Tiger play professional golf again?”

His comments from Mexico City, site of the America’s Golf Cup, an event he was supposed to play in with Matt Kuchar before another injury (recent back surgery) forced Woods to pull out, were as honest as I can remember Woods being when talking about his health and comeback timeline, even if it wasn’t what fans of his wanted to hear.

"I feel good, I’m just stiff; that’s the way it is after surgery,” Woods told reporters. "I haven’t been allowed to do much of anything.

"I’ll start my rehab soon, but it’s a long and tedious process. The last time, it took me a long time to come back. Some of the guys who have had (microdisectomy surgery) done said it took them over a year to be pain-free. I hope it doesn’t take me that long to be pain-free.”

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So say it takes a year for Tiger to return. That means he would be 41 by the time he plays another professional golf event fully healthy, if that is even a thing Woods’ body is capable of at this point, and it would put an even larger gap between the present day and the last time Woods was relevant on the golf course.

Being 41 means nothing these days in terms of playing competitive and capable golf at the highest level, but Woods will be no regular 41-year-old by the time the 2017 season starts. He has been injured for the better part of the last eight years, telling us time and time again after a return from whatever injury he is dealing with that he is 100 percent healthy and ready to get back to playing well and winning. The problem, of course, is every single time he’s mentioned being healthy, something else would come up and bother him. Other athletes have had careers cut short because their bodies couldn’t handle the grind of the work, and it looks like Woods could very well be the highest-profile athlete ever to hand over his abilities to a deteriorating body.

One of the reasons I made a rule this year to avoid writing about the end of Tiger Woods as we know him as a competent and competitive golfer is, frankly, it’s depressing.

We’ve seen Woods bounce back from a lot of things in his career, personal and otherwise, and we’ve seen him rise back to No. 1 in the world after injuries. His play in 2012 and ’13 was exactly what we had come to know from Woods despite his lack of major championship wins, and it looked like the ’14 season would bring much of the same, with Woods competing and winning with the biggest names in the game and getting himself (hopefully) in some final group over the weekend at a major.

Watching our legends grow older isn’t fun. It reminds us all that Father Time is a fickle, fickle bastard who can somehow grab us all by the ankles and pull us closer and closer to the dirt. A single mom with four kids, a president with hair greying by the day, even the best golfer to ever touch a Golf Pride grip. Golf might be the easiest sport to trick age in, but it’s still impossible to avoid.

Watching our legends grow older isn’t fun. It reminds us all that Father Time is a fickle, fickle bastard who can somehow grab us all by the ankles and pull us closer and closer to the dirt.

We are now forced to sit around wondering what’s next for the guy we never used to question. Will he return to the PGA Tour after this? Can he recover from another back surgery that will take months and months of intense rehab, something that maybe Woods isn’t as concerned with doing as he used to be? We’ve heard that Tiger hasn’t spent as much time practicing as he did in his prime, so what will force him to get back to that gym, back on that treadmill, back to the hours of working through pain and injury to find a way to play the game that made him so famous without wincing and grabbing something at some point during a tournament? How are we supposed to believe Tiger when he tells us he’s 100 percent healthy, whenever that is? He’s done it so much, and each time it’s one more thing that sidelines him for a stretch of the season.

Maybe it just isn’t possible anymore. Maybe this is it for Tiger. I’ve spent so much time defending Woods, expecting that the day he got healthy he would be back to that form we saw two years ago, but it’s time to start being realistic in how we monitor the future of this once-incredible champion. That major showdown with Rory, or Jordan, or even a 40-something battle at the Masters with Phil, just doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore.

And frankly, could you blame Woods for eventually settling on the idea that his days as a professional golfer are over? He’s already one of two men you’d consider the best to ever play the game, and he’s done it having gone through just about everything one could go through. Now golf fans watch a man battle through injuries, but more than anything battle through each round, trying his hardest to find something that clicks, some swing thought that works, some band-aid that will get him from the first tee to the 18th green without totally embarrassing himself.

Michael Jordan’s two years with the Wizards weren’t his best by any stretch of the imagination, but at least the guy could hit a jumper every now and again. For Woods, it’s as if golf gave him a 37-year loan and is finally trying to collect on its debt.

A year ago, I would have closed with something along the lines of, “If anyone can prove us wrong in the game of golf, it’s Tiger.” At this point, I think it’s the complete opposite.

Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com’s golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.