“I am extremely disappointed that I won’t be playing in the U.S. Open, but it’s time for me to listen to my doctors and focus on the future,” Woods said in a statement posted on his Web site Tuesday afternoon. “I was hopeful that I could play, but if I did, I risk further damage to my left leg. My knee and Achilles’ tendon are not fully healed.”
The impact of Woods’s announcement on the Open, Washington’s first major championship since Congressional hosted the same event in 1997, has more to do with buzz than substance. Tickets to the four rounds of the tournament, which begins June 16, were sold out before Woods’s announcement. But everything else around the event, including television ratings, could be affected by his absence.
“When he lacks traction, so does the sport,” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “Despite the fact that there are so many notable golfers who will be there, any major event without him still lacks a certain zeal. Those people who are casually flipping channels don’t stop and say, ‘I wonder how Tiger’s doing?’ ”
The deeper impact could be on Woods’s pursuit of becoming inarguably the greatest golfer who ever lived. Since he was a teenager, Woods has kept Nicklaus’s record in the majors — the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA — as his primary focus. He plays a light schedule every season, aiming to be fresh and in top form for the four tournaments. In an interview in May, Woods said that despite his personal and physical problems the goal hadn’t changed.
“It’s still the same,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal. The goal is to get to, obviously, 19 and beyond. That’s the benchmark in our sport. Nobody’s done it better than Jack.”
Woods, though, has now faced sustained absences in three of the past four years — two due to injury, one a self-imposed exile to deal with his personal problems. He has fallen to 15th in the world rankings not only because of substandard play, but inactivity. Woods’s predecessors and peers believe that has an impact on his future.
“The longer you’re away from the game, the harder it is to come back,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, now an analyst for ESPN. “I don’t care who you are. Then you factor in the fact that your kids are growing up, you’re a single parent, you’re scrutinized every time you get on the golf course because of your past, it all adds up. It’s going to be a tough go for him — and then you add in the injury.”
Woods originally suffered the latest injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon with one swing April 9 at the Masters. He tried to play just more than a month later at the Players Championship, but pulled out after nine miserable holes during which he limped and grimaced throughout.
“At Tiger’s age I’m more concerned about his body than his game,” former Masters champion Fred Couples, who has long battled a bad back, said last week. “His game will come back. But it’s hard to come back when you’ve got knee problems and hip problems and Achilles’ problems and all that stuff.”
Those injuries are now wrapped up in Woods’s pursuit, and though Woods said he wants to return for the AT&T National — the tournament that benefits his foundation and runs June 30-July 3 — as well as for the two remaining majors this season, nothing is certain. Though Woods said last month that his newly retooled swing will “put far less pressure on my knee, his swing coach, Sean Foley said it’s “almost impossible” to create a swing in which the left knee isn’t put under some undue stress.
Asked if he still felt as if he would surpass Nicklaus’s record, Woods pointed to how much time he expects to have left in his career. Nicklaus was 46 when he won his last major and 35 — Woods’s age — when he won his 14th. Nicklaus then had a gap until taking his 15th at age 38. By that measure, Woods remains on target.
Last week, Nicklaus said, “I have no clue” whether Woods could catch and surpass him, an indication of the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the situation. Woods needs five more majors to best Nicklaus; he is the only active player who has won more than four over an entire career.
“It also took Jack over 20 years,” Woods said in the interview last month. “It takes time. It’s a career. . . . I’ve been out here 15 years. One major a year for 14 years is not that bad an average.”
Physical recovery is not the only hurdle Woods faces. Once healthy, there could be a mental aspect to reestablishing himself.
“In golf when you’re number one and then you start to slide and your mind keeps telling you, ‘Man, I remember a year ago I could do this and then two years ago I did that,’ that’s the mentally toughest thing you go through,” Couples said. “There’s no other guy who can pick you up but yourself.”
Whether Woods can pick himself up now depends, first, on his health. Even Woods, in his statement, could only guess.
“I hope to be ready for AT&T National,” he said, “the next two majors and the rest of the year.”