Woods’s description of his own state, right at that moment: “Very optimistic,” he said, folding one leg over the other. Two days later, even as he departed his Quicken Loans National following a miserable showing that caused him to miss the cut by a gaping four shots, he somehow tried to declare victory: “The back is in the past,” he said.
This is and always has been Woods’s public face, where there is no room for self-doubt. The back, we know now, is very much in Woods’s present, and it’s hard to imagine it’s not in his future. When he withdrew Thursday from the Farmers Insurance Open – staged at Torrey Pines, a venue at which Woods had won eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open, the most recent of his 14 major championships – he sounded more like a physical therapist than a golfer. He spoke of how his “glutes are shutting off” and that it’s “frustrating that I just can’t stay activated” and “hence, it goes into my lower back.”
That’s all some degree of subterfuge. He is hurt, and there’s no telling when or if he’ll be healthy again.
We know, by now, that Woods’s body is brittle. In 1997, when he was supple and explosive, he changed the parameters of what a golfer could be — a real athlete, strong and powerful. He looked dominant. He felt dominant. He was dominant.
Now, in the year he turns 40, he is broken, and there is no evidence he will ever be fixed. His first surgery came in December of 2002, removing fluid in his left knee, but he still won his first start the following year. From 1997 through 2005, he made the cut in 142 straight tournaments, a record. Playing the weekend wasn’t a question for him. Contending was an assumption.
But his next medical procedure followed the Masters in 2008 – arthroscopic surgery to clean up some cartilage damage in that left knee — and he carried that problem to Torrey for the Open. There, he could barely walk, owing not just to the knee but to a pair of stress fractures in his left tibia. He won anyway, draining a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate. When the ball fell, Dan Hicks, calling the tournament for NBC, exclaimed over the din, “Expect anything different?” No one did.
Now, what to expect? Through some of his health issues – an inflamed joint in his neck in 2010, knee and Achilles’ tendon problems in 2011, more of the same early in 2012, an elbow problem in 2013 – he has been able survive and even thrive. He won five PGA Tour events in 2013 alone and was the player of the year. Yes, he is judged and judges himself by victories in major championships, and no, he didn’t win any of those. But he seized the world’s top ranking again.
There was just no way to see this coming, and people who say they did weren’t watching him win by seven shots at Bridgestone or a couple at the Players or back to back at Doral and Bay Hill. This wasn’t his heyday, not the four straight majors in 2000-01 or the four majors of 2005 and ’06 combined. But he could play, and he could win. And whether there was a mental block that hindered him at majors or not, he could certainly contend, and he was expected to do so every time he put the peg in the ground.
There is the back now, of course, and that’s why he withdrew at Bridgestone last August, why he walked off the course Thursday, his next appearance uncertain. But it is so much more than that, too. When Woods hosted another event that is staged by and benefits his charity last December – the Hero World Challenge at Isleworth Golf and Country Club outside Orlando, which used to be the course on which he lived – something just as alarming surfaced. Suddenly, Woods couldn’t chip. This master, maybe the best ever – the guy who holed out from behind the 16th green at the 2005 Masters, a shot that Lanny Wadkins, offering analysis before Woods stood over his ball, called “one of the toughest pitches in the entire place here” – could no longer find any semblance of touch or feel.
As he chunked pitch shot after pitch shot, in some cases leaving 15-yard shots 10 yards short of the green, he looked confused. That week, he tied for 17th, which statistically looks like his best finish since the start of 2014 – until you consider that it was an 18-man field, and he merely tied for last, 26 shots behind winner Jordan Spieth.
Was that the back? Was it the back when he made his 2015 debut last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and shot a second-round 82, the worst competitive score of his career? “I’m fine,” he told reporters then. “That’s not an issue anymore.” In the past calendar year, Woods has completed a Sunday round four times. He has now failed to do so six times: three withdrawals, three missed cuts.
Public optimism can serve as armor. Say things are fine often enough, and people might believe you, and you might believe yourself. It’s still striking, when Woods shows up at a tournament, how much optimism surrounds him, how much there remains a sense of possibility even as all this recent evidence shows he has no chance. He still represents the guy chipping in at 16 at the Masters, a moment Verne Lundquist punctuated by asking, “In your life have you seen anything like that?!”
We hadn’t then. Now we haven’t again. And we might finally be getting to the point with Tiger Woods where the optimism has worn off, and the reality of a man who appears broken both physically and mentally settles in.