Divining Tiger Woods has never been a straightforward endeavor.
Throughout his career, he’s proved to be as nifty with obfuscation – willfully ambiguous – as he’s been with a golf club.
But on Monday morning in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking at a media day for his foundation’s tournament, the Quicken Loans National, Woods offered a rare glimpse behind the curtain and, perhaps, a glimpse into his future.
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The back injury we knew so little about until it arrived on the scene suddenly – and dramatically – last September in New York was, it turns out, threatening to curtail his career.
As he’s wont to do, obsessively keeping even the smallest snippets of information from the media, Woods played down the injury last fall, going so far as to blame a soft hotel bed for the pain that – literally – brought him to his knees in the final round at The Barclays.
But on Monday, he revealed the pain was so severe that “I couldn’t function anymore.”
“Getting out of bed was a task, and forget about playing golf at the highest level,” he told reporters.
The pain was so unbearable that Woods felt sure he didn’t have many years of playing left.
“One of the things is I would like to, as all athletes, go out on my own terms,” he said. “But prior to the surgery, I didn’t think I would have much of a playing career if I felt like this because, as I said, I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Since having surgery March 31, however, Woods said he’s been “excited about what the prospects hold.”
“(If) I’m able to feel this way, and if that’s the case, then I’m excited about my career,” he said. “I’m able to do what I want to do for as long as I want to.”
And in these words, perhaps, lies the answer to the most fascinating question in all of golf: Will he catch Jack’s record of 18 majors, or was his career – in terms of the fulfillment of its potential – effectively ended that Thanksgiving night in Orlando, Fla.?
Woods’ estranged coach, Hank Haney, says he first came to understand in 2007 that Woods sensed his career would be much shorter than anyone might have guessed. Interestingly, Haney noticed that Woods stopped working as hard on his game in that year, too.
Steve Williams, Woods’ estranged caddie, once told me he noticed in 2005 that Tiger, who harbored dreams of becoming a Navy SEAL, wasn’t as consumed by golf as he’d been.
He kept winning, however, which may not have been the best of lessons for Woods. By this year, his preparation was at an all-time low, as were his prospects for winning. He showed up at Torrey Pines in January and tried to wing it, only to barely break 80 and miss the Saturday cut at a tournament he’s won eight times.
His trip to the Middle East was forgettable, as was the Honda Classic, where Woods was forced to withdraw during the final round. The next week at Doral, he probably should’ve pulled out, too, but instead soldiered on to shoot a Sunday 78.
He hasn’t played since.
If there’s hope for those who want to see Woods rediscover the player he used to be, it’s that his lack of preparedness was caused by the pain of a bad back, not a loss of heart.
Doctors can operate on only one of those ailments; the other is incurable.
No one will know for sure, of course, until Woods returns. And that will not happen anytime soon.
The U.S. Open is out of the question given that he has yet to do more than chip and putt. The British Open seems a long shot, too.
“This has been a different procedure than I’ve had in the past,” he said. “Certainly a lot more tedious, I think, with the workouts and the little things you have to do, little minutiae things you have to do on a daily basis.”
Asked about a timetable for his return, Woods responded that there wasn’t one.
“I think that’s been kind of the realization to all of this is that there’s no date,’" he said. “It’s just, take it on a daily basis. It’s not going to be up to me whether I play or not, it’s going to be up to my docs.
“Obviously I want to play now. I miss playing. I miss being out there on the golf course. I miss getting out there and hitting balls like that and just playing. I miss the game.”