Woods’s hiatus, brought on by persistent injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon originally suffered April 9 at the Masters, is now approaching three months. The layoff is sounding more and more self-imposed because of the damage he caused while trying to play May 12 in the Players Championship, an event from which he withdrew after nine holes. His new mind-set, in the wake of missing the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club earlier this month: caution.
“I’m being smarter this time,” he said.
During the course of a 30-minute session with reporters prior to the AT&T National — the PGA Tour stop that annually benefits his foundation — Woods repeatedly said he would not play this time until he was fully healed. Though in the same breath he would not rule out playing in the British Open, which begins July 14 at Royal St. George’s, he described an arduous rehabilitation process that includes twice- and sometimes thrice-daily workouts but has not, to this point, included hitting balls.
Before he can play again, the 14-time major champion said he must go through a progression that begins with hitting chip shots, then pitches, then full wedges before he attempts all-out swings with irons or woods. He repeatedly referred to the process he endured in late 2008 and early 2009, when he was coming off reconstructive surgery on his left knee, and said then, “Each week, I was able to progress either two or three clubs in the bag.”
Though he cautioned, “it doesn’t mean I’m going to do that now,” a similar course this time might have Woods back in time for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August in Akron, Ohio, where he has won seven times. That event immediately precedes the final major of the season, the PGA Championship, Aug. 11-14 at Atlanta Athletic Club. Woods said he would be “very surprised” if he didn’t play the rest of the year.
“I’m progressing,” Woods said. “If I had knee surgery and I was out for a while, then it’s a different deal. I haven’t gone under the knife. I’m strengthening and trying to get this thing stronger and explosive again.”
So, for the second time in four years, the summer golfing landscape is different. Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland who won the U.S. Open at Congressional in record fashion, is the buzz-worthy name of the moment, and he’ll head to Royal St. George’s as both the sentimental and betting favorite. The field for the AT&T National — which is finishing a two-year run at Aronimink before returning to Congressional next year — would be weak even if it included Woods.
None of the top 14 players in the world rankings is here, and of the players who have won the past 13 major championships, only one — 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover — will play. Woods, now down to 17th in the world rankings, hasn’t won any tournament since November 2009, and has missed time to deal with his personal life after a sex scandal and for health reasons the past two seasons. His absence simply isn’t as noteworthy as it once was.
“We’re getting used to him not being around as much,” said England’s Justin Rose, who won this event last year. “It’s been a couple years almost now, so there’s been a lot of other great stories in the meantime, a lot of opportunities for other guys to get their name in lights and a lot of other reasons for fans to identify with other players, too. . . . As time has gone by, we’ve been forced to have to look for new favorites.”
Woods said he understands that phenomenon. He heaped due praise on McIlroy. “His swing is definitely better than mine was at that age,” he said. But even in a moment in which he said he had no idea when he would play next, Woods refused to be dismissed.
“I’m 35,” Woods said. “I’m not 65. I’ve still got some years ahead of me. Golf is unlike any other sport. . . . We can play for a very long time, and given that we have the health to do it, guys have succeeded for a very long time.
“That’s what I would like to do is play this game for as long as I want to. I feel like my best years are still ahead of me.”