Tiger Woods will never catch Jack Nicklaus until he comes to terms with his own frailty

This is the day that Tiger Woods got old. How he deals with that indignity, adapts his game and his personality to it, will define how much satisfaction and success he’ll get from the remainder of his golf career. If he keeps fighting the messages that his knees, Achilles’, neck, elbow and now back have sent him for the past six years, he’s more likely to end up with 19 surgeries than 19 majors.

In sports where you run, jump and might get knocked cold, 38-year-old athletes have all come to terms with the aging process far earlier than Woods. If they refuse to compromise with age, they wash out of their sport entirely.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Woods doesn’t seem to realize it, but he’s perilously close to the level of irreversible injury that cut short Seve Ballesteros’s competitive years well before he was 40 and made Freddie Couples an occasional golfer, plea-bargaining with his barking back — can I play, please — for the past 20 years.

On Tuesday, Woods said he would miss next week’s Masters after surgery Monday to relieve a pinched nerve that’s bothered him for months. That’s just the latest back-stab in Woods’s physical deterioration since 2008. Much of it is self-inflicted because he won’t use the minimal common sense that is the norm in the NFL, MLB or NBA: modesty in the face of the inevitable. Woods always wants to be compared to such “real” athletes, yet he ignores their lessons.

Because golfers train and perform in a supposedly gentler sport, they expect their 30s to be prime years and their 40s still productive. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer never missed a major championship for which they were eligible until they were 58 and 65 years old, respectively.

Can Tiger Woods still pass Jack Nicklaus?

But that was then, and this is Woods. He has driven himself like an Olympic athlete and now has paid what would simply be considered a typical price in other sports. Yet in golf, it truly is a shock to see an immortal falling apart so young.

And falling apart Woods is. This will be the fifth major he has missed in seven years. Will he be back for the U.S. Open or even the British Open in July? That’s in doubt. If he does play, how well can he do? In two recent majors, coming back from injury, Woods has missed a cut and shot 13 over par, his worst score as a pro.

His “microdiscectomy” is a procedure usually performed to relieve a herniated disc. Details are sparse from the secretive Woods; this isn’t minor. Such surgeries can take months for a full recovery. “It also looks like I’ll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments,” Woods already concedes.

Woods desperately needs to play fewer events, practice less, control his inner-obsessive and, above all, listen when his body shrieks at him. In other words, he needs to do what most of us would consider obvious, but which goes entirely against his ferocious competitiveness. Can he loosen his grip, just a bit, as most fine athletes in every sport, including Nicklaus, do as 40 arrives? So far, concessions by Woods have been minuscule and forced by pain or surgery.

Five years ago, Woods vowed to change himself as a person after the scandals that led to his divorce. There seems to be progress in his private life. Now, Woods needs to change himself as a golfer. That may turn out to be as hard or even harder.

Every top-ranked player of the past 40 years has reached a point where he decided that playing, practicing and grinding in enough events to stay top-ranked simply extracted too big a physical toll in a torque-intensive sport and left too little mental energy to focus on majors. When does Woods have that insight?

On Monday, Woods took his usual full-throttle, nothing-has-changed position: “It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future. There are a couple [of] records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam [Snead] and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”

Woods needs to stop protecting his brand and start protecting the man. If he keeps driving himself as he always has, he won’t have many fine years left at all.

Our own personal mythologies, no matter how small, are hard to shake. The office worker who takes pride in seldom using a sick day becomes invested in his own dependability. Imagine the investment in your well-earned image as almost superhuman after winning the 2008 U.S. Open by limping 91 holes on a broken leg.

Woods has given golf amazing feats and memories. Whatever he’s messed up along the way, he’s paid for in money and mortification. He’s square with the large majority of golf fans. Millions just want to see a healthy Tiger, losing hair, pushing 40, who doesn’t drive himself into one season-ruining injury after another.

By the time Nicklaus was 38 he had, for years, been taking nearly 300 vacation days a year — at least vacation from rounds of actual tournament golf. Maybe he dropped by the Augusta National two weeks early to kick it around for a day.

Perhaps it’s time to call Tom Watson and ask how he improved his swing with age, but didn’t grind his bones to dust, and almost won the British Open at 59. Tiger might even want to bump into Jack. How do you become a part-time giant?

You can’t get younger. But you can let yourself heal. Tiger never really does.

Last month, just days after withdrawing on a Sunday in pain with five holes to play, he entered the very next event. In the final round, he tried one of his I’m-still-28, off-balance, full-rip recovery shots from the side of a fairway bunker and, as average folks could’ve told him, wrenched his already injured back.

By the final holes, Woods could barely endure the pain of bowing his back to assume his normal putting stance. Once, he couldn’t even bend to take his ball out of the hole. Next stop: surgery.

Woods will not be at the Masters. When will we see him again? Here’s a novel idea: when he’s actually healed.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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