There has been a broken leg, a shredded knee, a balky Achilles’ tendon, even a series of sordid personal revelations, and every April for the past two decades Tiger Woods showed up in Augusta, Ga., with the azaleas. The Masters officially opens the year for major championship golf and unofficially signals the arrival of spring, and since 1995, Woods has helped ring in both, more often than not as the focal point.
That ended Tuesday, when Woods announced his increasingly problematic back had required surgery Monday and will prevent him from playing the Masters for the first time since he was a teenager. The announcement, made on his Web site, indicated he will miss several weeks, and his agent said it is “too early to discuss a specific date for return.”
So it is clear that, in the short view, Woods’s summer is in jeopardy — including, perhaps, the U.S. Open June 12-15 at Pinehurst, N.C., where Woods has twice finished in the top three, and the British Open a month later in Hoylake, England, where Woods won the 2006 title.
It is also clear, by this point, that the pursuit that matters most to Woods — and, in turn, is golf’s most intriguing story line — is also in peril. Woods, 38, owns 14 major titles. Since he was a child, he has sought to topple Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. But Woods will now miss his fifth major in the past seven years, all because of injuries. From the Masters in 1962 through the U.S. Open in 1998 — a span of 146 majors — Nicklaus didn’t miss one.
Woods acknowledged that backdrop — along with his pursuit of Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour victories, which he needs three to tie — in a statement posted on his Web site.
“There are a couple [of] records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break,” Woods said. “As I’ve said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”
Woods’s last major championship came in 2008, the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines he won over 91 holes, a broken leg and Rocco Mediate. Even if Woods plays at Pinehurst, the drought will officially be six years. Nicklaus’s longest streak without a major victory came between Nos. 17 and 18, the 1980 PGA Championship, when he was 40, and the 1986 Masters, when he was 46.
There is, too, the nature of this injury. In an interview last week, Woods said his knee issues were almost completely about enduring pain. When it became too much, his surgery prevented him from competing in the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship, and new problems with his left knee and Achilles’ cost him the 2011 U.S. and British Opens.
His back, though, is another matter.
“This affects every shot, every stance,” Woods said in the interview. “This is very different. I’ve had to treat this as something that’s not normal to me. Over the years I’ve been able to play through my knee injuries. I’ve tried to play through it, and I just can’t.”
With that, Woods went to Dr. Charles Rich, a neurosurgeon in Park City, Utah, to have the surgery Monday. His Web site described it as a “successful microdisectomy,” a procedure typically performed to relieve a herniated disc.
Mark Steinberg, Woods’s agent, wouldn’t say whether the U.S. Open or, for that matter, the Quicken Loans National from June 26-29 at Congressional Country Club — the event Woods hosts — was a reasonable target for return. Steinberg wrote in an e-mail: “The hope is for some point this summer.”
Woods has played just four PGA Tour events this season, withdrawing from the Honda Classic with the back problem March 2, then struggling to a final-round 78 the following week at Doral. Since then, he has been able only to chip and putt, severely compromising his preparation even before he elected for surgery.
“After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done,” Woods said on his Web site. “I’d like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters. It’s a week that’s very special to me. It also looks like I’ll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.”
Notah Begay, a PGA Tour pro who was teammates with Woods at Stanford and remains friends with him, has seen his own career completely derailed by back issues. He said Tuesday on the Golf Channel that he advised Woods to address the problem rather than try to play through it.
“Back pain just kind of escalates and the nerves gets agitated, and as the spine is rotating, rep after rep, and week after week, it eventually gets to the point to where it begins to develop compensations in your swing,” Begay said. “He talked about the club catching on the way back and catching on the way through at certain points in the swing. You are never going to play world class golf if you are worried about two different points in your swing that are going to have an effect on the impact zone.”
Woods’s surgery leaves the Masters without its biggest draw. It is daunting, too, that Phil Mickelson — the other indisputable marquee name — withdrew from last weekend’s tournament in Texas because of a pulled muscle.
The focus though, this spring as each spring for nearly two decades, is Woods. But it is not just about this Masters, the one he’ll miss. It’s about those beyond, because next year will mark a decade without a Masters title, and further questions about whether he’ll ever win one again.
“It’s tough right now,” Woods said, “but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future.”