PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Hope and optimism are fragile things. As fragile these days as Tiger Woods’ body.
Woods pulled out of next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational because of lingering issues with his surgically repaired back that forced him to withdraw from Dubai in early February and two subsequent scheduled starts since.
His status for the Masters Tournament is once again in jeopardy, with the odds of him missing it for the third time in four years at lot higher than him being any kind of relevant factor if he does choose to play.
“Presently, I have no timetable for my return to golf, but my treatments are continuing and going well,” the 41-year-old Woods said in a statement.
Whatever hope and optimism that his promising return to golf in the Bahamas last December fostered has been buried in a heap of doubt and pessimism. It’s hard to argue with the “Tiger is done” crowd when he hasn’t made a cut since August 2015.
“He’s working hard at it, but I don’t think he’s doing that well physically,” Steve Stricker, one of Woods’ good friends on tour, said two days before Woods announced his plans to miss Bay Hill.
Like the rest of us, Stricker watched Woods shuffling around Torrey Pines and Dubai like an old man and wondered what happened to the lean and limber version that led the field in birdies less than to months earlier at the Hero World Challenge.
“Just the way he was walking didn’t look quite right,” Stricker said. “Walking very gingerly. Slow and methodical. It didn’t really look physically like he was ready to play. You have that and then that goes into your game and it affects you mentally, too.”
When Woods came back in the Bahamas, he seemed to be believe that “Phase II,” as he called it, would bring him back to a level of competitiveness he is comfortable with.
“I care about what I do out there,” he said.
It is that caring that makes it easy to think that retirement is imminent for arguably the greatest competitor golf has ever seen. It’s not a question of whether or not Woods can catch Jack Nicklaus’ major record or Sam Snead’s tour win total. It’s a question of whether or not he can handle being something he’s never been – a regular golfer.
Pat Perez caught undo flak for speaking his mind about his friend and golfing hero a few weeks ago, but what Perez said wasn’t wrong.
“He’s not going to come out and play, and play poorly,” Perez said among other things that fired up Tiger’s defensive fan base. “He’s not going to do it for a long time.”
As much as we’d all love to see Woods show up to play in the Masters, what exactly are we expecting if he does?
We’ve long been conditioned to believe that Woods can’t be counted out of anything – especially at Augusta where he’s won four times and had nine additional top-10 finishes in 20 career starts.
But we can’t expect that that Woods is going to suddenly materialize on the first tee in four weeks and dazzle us like he did 20 years ago. That Tiger Woods is gone. This version couldn’t even sit for a press conference last month.
Do we really want to see a 41-year-old Woods play the Masters the way a 70-year-old Arnold Palmer used to? Tiger isn’t Arnie and doesn’t want to be seen as just some ceremonial golfer. His pride won’t allow that.
“If he gets to Augusta and he’s limping away and it’s just not going to plan and playing golf is hard work, who knows what might happen then?” said Nick Faldo, who played his last Masters a decade after his final win when he was still only 48. “There might be another press conference there of a different kind.
“This is a really important time in Tiger’s life. If he wants to stay a golfer he’s got to commit and he’s got to be rewarded. Otherwise, why would he want to put himself through this? He was oh-so dominant and he doesn’t want to just be a golfer, I don’t believe.”
I believe Faldo is right. I believe that as much as Tiger’s heart wants to lace up his spikes and play the Masters, his body and his mind are telling him not to.
Not this year, at least. In December I wrote “Tiger’s re-entry would have to be classified as more encouraging than discouraging.”
Nothing since has supported that hope and optimism. As much as we want to see Tiger Woods playing the Masters again, that Tiger Woods isn’t coming whether he decides to play or not.