His Ryder Cup worthiness, his would-be pairing with Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship, his anticipated return to the site (Valhalla) of a stirring triumph, his capability of winning another major championship one of these weeks or months or years — suddenly, those are not discussion points. There is only one story now concerning Tiger Woods, and that is whether the man who produced the greatest multiple-year stretch of golf ever played still has a future in the sport.
Sunday in Akron, Ohio — hometown of LeBron James, the basketball force who replaced him as America’s pre-eminent athlete — Woods withdrew from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with back pain. Consider it a told-you-so confirmation from those of us who warned he was returning too quickly after March 31 back surgery and was doomed for more misery. And misery is not overstating the situation when he barely could stand in the parking lot afterward, having to hold onto the car while unable to lean down and and tend to his shoelaces.
“It happened on the second hole when I hit my second shot, I fell back into the bunker. I just jarred it, and it’s been spasming ever since,” Woods said. “It’s just the whole lower back. I don’t know what happened.”
If he can re-injure his back in what wasn’t an uncommon golfing dilemma — falling backward into a bunker after a robust swing in an uncomfortable stance above the trap — then how will he remain healthy enough, approaching 40, to maintain the consistent work pattern necessary to compete on the tour, much less contend for major titles? Woods has dealt with injuries of all sorts throughout his 30s, the result of a career launched when he barely was out of the womb and symbolized by a power game of vicious, torque-heavy swings. How many swings? Hundreds of thousands?
The cumulative amount has come back to haunt him. And if the fallout from his sex scandal was viewed as karma biting him in the ass, the breakdown of his body is a bummer.
Before surgery, Woods sometimes had trouble getting out of bed. He declared himself healthy and ready to pursue Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors when he returned last month for the British Open, but after an opening-round 69 at Royal Liverpool, he has struggled in subsequent performances. Now, he is in pain again, and though he was born with extraordinary measures of perseverance and fire, this has become far more daunting than a career challenge.
This looks like his final act of survival. Having built a new life as a loving, doting father and significant other to the Olympic champion skier, Lindsey Vonn, will Woods want to keep fighting through the pain just to make cuts of tournaments he once dominated? He admitted last week that returning from back surgery has been more difficult than recovering from previous injuries.
“There is no comparison between a knee and a back,” he said. “This thing is just way different. It’s way more debilitating than I thought.”
He added that he was waiting for his doctors to approve a more “explosive’’ weightlifting regimen, so he could add more speed to his swing from the tee. “I haven’t done any explosive lifting,” Woods said. “I haven’t done any of my fast-twitch stuff yet. As soon as I start doing my fast-twitch stuff, I can get my speed back up and then I can go back to my old driver. … You don’t want to do two things at once. I’m hitting the golf ball and then you’ll still want to burn the candle at both ends by doing fast-twitch, explosive lifting and all my agility stuff I’ve been doing for years. Can’t burn the candle at both ends right now.”
Now, he can’t tie his shoes.
The year is 2014. Didn’t Tiger say “Hello, World’’ back in 1996? When he last won a major, more than six years ago, Barack Obama was still a senator from Illinois, tweeting was some newfangled gadget doomed to dumb us down, and Don Draper was just starting to cheat on Betty. Hell, Tiger hadn’t even cheated on Elin yet. We did miss him earlier this year when he was recovering from surgery, but as quickly as his return enlivened a sport that had become uneventful without him, Woods reminded us of his demise at the British Open. After heightening hopes in the first round, he finished 69th, his worst-ever outcome in a major. Coupled with the wire-to-wire victory of Rory McIlroy, who clearly is branded now as golf’s present and future, Tiger never has seemed older.
A painful exercise for him becomes equally painful for us to watch. And even if the pain subsides and he marches on, Tiger can’t merely show up for majors. He must contend, wear the red victory shirt on Sundays, at least evoke periodic flashes of his former dominance. Otherwise, he becomes Michael Jordan in Washington. And no one wants to experience that debacle again. Recently, Woods compared the current state of his game with that of Jordan in his twilight. “As I’ve aged, I can’t play the way I used to,’’ he said of the death-stare, power-and-intimidation days, noting that younger players have the same toned bodies and athleticism that once set him apart. “It’s changed dramatically. But just like MJ, I’ve got a fadeaway now.’’
If a fadeaway means barely making the cut and playing the weekend off the radar screen, or another withdrawal due to injury, that translates to a man trying to hang on for dear life. That is not the Eldrick Woods I know.
Golf does not lend itself to truth-rendering as much as other sports do. We realized that literally when talented American Dustin Johnson reportedly was suspended six months by the PGA Tour after three failed drug tests — two for cocaine, this year and in 2012 — and Tour bosses would not confirm the suspension, citing its traditional, irresponsible policy of not discussing internal matters. By not coming clean, the Tour isn’t being honest with fans who support the sport with money and interest.
Woods isn’t being honest with himself. If he somehow can place himself on a leaderboard some Sunday afternoon when it matters, yes, the world will stop everything and watch as always. But whatever clout he has as a personality has been diminished by human frailty.
He has fallen apart, first as a family man and now as an all-time sportsman. Some will say Tiger Woods is getting what he deserves.
I say it’s all kind of sad. Because we’ll never, ever see another like him.