The Tiger Woods doomsday clock moved 30 seconds closer to midnight on Friday with the announcement that the 41-year-old, who in the past three years has had more back surgeries (3) than top 10s (1), would be halting his latest comeback due to the same type of back spasms suffered during the Omega Dubai Desert Classic earlier this month. Overall, Woods will skip the next two tournaments on his calendar and announced no plans for a return.
Of all the setbacks Tiger has had — and there have been many — this is the most disconcerting. He’d done it right this time. He hadn’t rushed back after his last injury. He’d taken off more than a year to properly recover and get in shape physically. He seemed to be in a far better mental place than he’d been when you could just tell he wasn’t as confident in his swing as he said he was. And now this — 16 months off competitive golf, countless rehab hours, hundreds of hours on the range and for what?
A fine comeback performance at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas (he led the field in birdies but had issues on the tee and green that caused too many blow-up holes), a missed cut at Torrey Pines and then the withdrawal in Dubai after shooting a birdie-free 77 in the first round. That’s it. Three tournaments, one finish, one cut and one withdrawal. (And that finish came in a cut-free tournament.)
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Now, with 55 days left until the Masters, Tiger is out a full month (at minimum) and could next play March 9-12 at the Valspar Championship or a week after that at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he had to have had circled since his comeback began, given his success at Bay Hill and the fact that it’s the first playing of the event since Palmer’s death. It’s now all in doubt. What was supposed to be the first year of the second phase of Tiger’s career is like the last six — dotted with WDs and question marks. Before, it was only with a crystal ball you could say Tiger was done. Today, it’s basically a coin flip.
What’s next? If you accepted that this comeback was going to be the real deal for Tiger, that after years of rushing back he had finally listened to his mind instead of his heart and gotten himself healthy (like tennis players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal did successfully in taking time off last year), then how can you have even a modicum of faith this is anything but the new normal for the 14-time major champion? And, on the off chance this is just another blip and down the road he’ll somehow be able to maintain his health for months, or years, at a time, then what’s the best-case scenario? A couple more tournament wins? Some exciting Sundays at a handful of majors? The bar drops with even missed tournament.
Jack Nicklaus, who was as healthy in body and mind as any golfer before or since, had one major win after turning 41 (his ’86 Masters, natch). Phil Mickelson, who’s been healthy his whole career, won a major at 43 and contended in one last season at 45. We’ve seen brief, late-career resurgences in Vijay Singh, Kenny Perry and Fred Funk, but they’ve been fleeting. Tiger Woods is 41 years old with a major history of the worst kind of sports injury an athlete can suffer. The ceiling could well be the floor.
What do you call a golfer with back trouble? Well, usually a golf commentator. A bad back has ended more careers than the yips. It never goes away; you merely hope you can relax it enough for four days to play relatively pain free. The problem is that playing well enough to win and playing pain free are diametrically opposed: You have to rest to play without pain but you have to play to get in tournament shape. We’ve already seen what Woods look like when he’s not healthy. His only chance to show a glimmer of the old magic is to somehow get his back in line. He’s about 0-4 on that since 2013.
Still, call me delusional but until he hangs it up for good, I refuse to believe Tiger Woods won’t win another major. If Tom Watson can nearly win one at 59 and Fred Couples can loop it around Augusta well enough to be in contention on the back-nine every few years and David Duval can tie for second at a U.S. Open eight years after his game fell apart, then Tiger Woods, who was as good at his peak as any athlete was at anything, can put together four rounds to outlast a field at a major.
But it’s not just hyperbole now. The clock is ticking and midnight might just be another back surgery away.