The following endeavor is ill-advised. The merits of writing about an athlete who is neither competing nor talking — who is making no news — would seem nonexistent. We now no longer know when Tiger Woods will play golf, and we can’t predict when he will speak meaningfully about such an attempt, and we should all just get on with what we’re doing. Like planting flowers. Or mopping the floor.
But as much as there is an undeniable nothing-to-see-here element to Woods’s week — for which he traveled to Southern California, site of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club — it’s worth considering where all these fits and starts leave us.
We are, with Tiger, caught in between. His present purgatory both clouds the future and prevents us from appreciating the past. He is 41 and has what can be described only as a chronically bad back. The hopeful among us (okay, the obsessive among us) were looking forward to hearing what he had to say about that back — and, myopically, how it might impact his ability to appear at Augusta in less than two months.
A Masters with Tiger in contention on the weekend again. Close your eyes. We can dream, right?
But then, Tuesday night, Woods canceled a Wednesday news conference at a tournament at which he hosts. The tournament issued a statement saying Woods’s back spasms — which caused him to withdraw from a tournament in Dubai and cancel scheduled commitments at Riviera and at the Honda Classic — were so debilitating that he had been “advised by doctors to limit all activities,” which apparently covers talking. Presumably not breathing.
To be clear, in the scope of things, this doesn’t matter. What was he going to say, anyway? His back hurts. He is trying to get it to calm down. He doesn’t know when it will be right. All he can do is try to get better, get back to practicing and go from there.
But there is so much false hope involved in any of Woods’s self-assessments. It’s as if we don’t listen to what he is saying because we’re so caught up in what he was and what we believe he could be again. He taught us no shot was impossible. He taught us every putt would go in. He taught us not to doubt him. So those same standards we applied at 21 should apply at 41.
Except they don’t. Woods, as currently constituted, is a non-factor in golf. That’s not to say he is irrelevant. The mere existence of this column, the amount of words typed over his cancellation of a news conference, shows quite the opposite.
But competitively, it’s worth a reminder of his recent form. Since 2013, when he won five times, Woods has competed in 23 full-field events (and by “full-field,” we’re dismissing appearances at his own 18-player Hero World Challenge but including World Golf Championship events). He has withdrawn from four midstream and missed the cut seven times, meaning he hasn’t reached the weekend nearly half the times he has teed it up. The dozen times he has reached Sunday have produced one top-10 finish, and that was a tie for 10th at the 2015 Wyndham Classic.
After that, back surgery. He didn’t play competitively for more than a year.
Go back further, when we used to judge Woods not by his wins in San Diego or Orlando but by majors. June will bring the ninth anniversary of the last of Woods’s 14 major titles. There have been 34 majors held since that epic Monday at Torrey Pines, when Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff with a broken leg and shredded knee. (Remember, this is what he taught us about himself: Believe. Whatever the circumstances, believe.)
In those 34 majors, Woods has 10 DNPs because of injury and six missed cuts. Again, nearly half the majors over the past nine years have been left without Woods on the weekend. In the 34 majors leading up to the Open win at Torrey: one missed cut, zero DNPs, 12 victories — which is taking the careers of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson combined.
Let that settle.
That’s what Woods’s current start-again, stop-again reality prevents us from truly considering in full, the completeness of his career achievements. If there’s still the possibility of achieving more, why look back on what was?
Yet it’s also beyond time to consider the possibility that there will be no more. His own words reveal something his past self never did: Doubt. Not in his mind but in his body.
“I feel good, not great,” he told Peter Dawson, the former head of the R&A, during an interview in Dubai before teeing it up there. “Granted, I don’t think I’ll ever feel great, because it’s three back surgeries, four knee operations.”
Later that week, at a pre-tournament news conference, he described what he was trying to accomplish with his swing. “I just play away from pain,” he said. Translation: Unless and until he finds a way to simultaneously protect his back and hit the golf ball flush, each swing will be compromised, its result imperfect. So it’s a roundabout way of admitting, quite publicly, that he can’t recapture the past.
The next day, he shot 77. The day after, he withdrew because of the back spasms.
And then, a flight back to the United States and another across the country and a date to speak to the media — and, in turn, the fans — at a tournament run by his foundation. But then even speaking was too much.
The Masters is seven weeks away.
“The whole plan,” Woods told Dawson in Dubai, “was to get my body, mind and spirit ready for that first full week in April.”
What a thought. But it’s exactly that kind of thought — the sliver of possibility that his body, mind and spirit will be ready, that the past will emerge again — that keeps us wondering with Woods. In this limbo, we can’t fully embrace who he once was and let go of wondering whether he ever will be that again.