Luckily for Tiger Woods — but unfortunately for his own event — the world’s No. 1 golfer finally has learned he is not indestructible. Woods withdrew from this week’s AT&T National with an injured elbow.
How did he hurt it? The same way he always damages himself and the same way he has made himself great: a little at a time, always pushing for more of what he wants, always refusing to stop when others would, always viewing conventional good judgment as suspect and his own unbridled will as a better guide.
Now, at 37, he says he realizes he must adjust to age and injury. Yet he still hasn’t — not quite. This very injury is a microcosm of all the others but also a mirror of his insatiable drive. Will he ever learn? Or could he and still be Tiger?
Woods won’t be at Congressional Country Club, site of his own victory in this event last June, when the first round starts Thursday. He’ll keep track of top players who remain in a somewhat depleted field, like Masters winner Adam Scott and his rising Australian countryman Jason Day, as well as top U.S. players like Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Nick Watney and Jim Furyk.
This week’s lesson for Woods is a biting one: At every stage of his career, including the last few weeks, he has pushed himself to play through pain — and sometimes through injury — to a level that has seemed excessive, with hindsight, even to him.
In May, Woods hurt his left elbow at the Players. “It wasn’t a single shot that did it” at the Players, Woods said. “It didn’t feel good early in the week, but I pushed through it. It progressively just got worse. Got to a point where I was starting to struggle a little bit.”
Because he was already in discomfort and “struggling,” he played in Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament, an event on which this AT&T National is somewhat modeled. Nobody wants to disappoint Jack or appear to be a lame no-show. So once more, Woods pushed through — and finished 20 shots behind. Does he regret playing the Memorial? “I wouldn’t necessarily say regret. I wish I’d played better so I didn’t have so many [trouble] shots I had to hit,” Woods said. With hindsight, better to bag it?
“It would have been better, yes,” he said Wednesday.
So by toughing it out (again), he damaged his chances at the U.S. Open, where he winced in pain often and faded on Sunday; now, he has to skip his own event so he can — maybe, if he’s lucky — be almost ready to put his best play on display at the British Open next month at Muirfield.
When Woods’s legacy is summed up, his most melodramatic win will probably be his 91-hole victory at the ’08 U.S. Open while playing on a broken leg. What other modern golfer would even have attempted it? But how many times in majors, especially in recent years, have Woods’s injuries cost him a chance to be in the field or to compete at full strength? Will both the ’13 U.S. and British Opens eventually fall into the “hindered” category?
“I listened to my docs, and [I am] not touching a club,” Woods said Wednesday. “Eventually I’ll start the strengthening process of it. Then start hitting balls to get up to speed for the British.”
How close will he be to full strength by then?
“100 percent?” Woods said skeptically.
Pick a number.
“How about GED, good enough,” Woods said.
That’s better than WD, but it’s not too wonderful to cope with gorse, high wind, cold and sideways rain. Bad conditions for a bad elbow.
Woods says his withdrawal this week is actually an example of learning from experience. “I played with a lot [of injuries] in my early 20s, and no one ever knew about it,” he said. “I played a few events where I really shouldn’t have played, and it caused some damage.”
That’s why you won’t see Woods at Congressional, except on Sunday to present the trophy. And perhaps on other days since he says he’ll be “here and there.” The more Woods is “here” the next four days and the less he is “there,” the better chance his event comes back to Congressional.
His charisma is the magnet that induces a U.S. Open-worthy club to inconvenience itself to hold a PGA Tour event. Members will notice that U.S. Open winner Justin Rose played in Hartford last week yet withdrew from the AT&T, citing post-victory exhaustion. If Woods had as much pull with his peers as Jack or Arnie, if reciprocity were his strength rather than, like that other Stanford great Tom Watson, a bit of a liability, perhaps Rose would’ve punted Hartford to avoid being too tuckered out to come to D.C.
Some clubhouse handshaking and storytelling with members might help Woods get the votes he needs to keep holding his event in their classy joint, where it will return in ’14 but is undecided thereafter.
The subtractions of Woods and Rose, Nos. 1 and 3 in the world, certainly have been a hard hit. Washington loves celebrities, especially Tiger. But it also has a region-wide golf culture that has supported at least a dozen Kemper-Booz-Allen-Who-Knows-What tour stops that couldn’t touch the appeal of Congressional, plus dozens of players who serious golf fans enjoy.
On Thursday morning, Fowler, Furyk and multiple major winner Angel Cabrera play in a group immediately behind Vijay Singh and just in front of Watney and young Billy Horschel, who lit up Merion two weeks ago. In the afternoon, consecutive groups feature a trio of top Australians, Scott, Day and Marc Leishman, followed by Snedeker, Mahan and previous AT&T winner and local favorite K.J. Choi. For some general sports fans, that may not be enough; for golf fans, such players at Congressional probably will be plenty.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing not to play in my own event. This tournament means so much to us at the [Tiger Woods] Foundation. We’ve raised $15 million for the D.C. area with two learning centers here. We have 25 Earl Woods scholars that are from here,” said Woods, who donates 30,000 tickets to the military in honor of his special-forces dad.
“On top of that I am — or was — defending” champion, Woods said. “Congressional is going to present a hell of a test for the guys. I’ll be watching.”
Just don’t lean on that elbow.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.