The future for Tiger Woods

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When Tiger Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic a few months ago with a back problem during Sunday’s final round, him skipping the Masters never entered my mind.

When he struggled through his final round at Doral, looking like the world’s oldest 38-year old, it was obvious that he was hurt but that he was going to finish out, likely in some act of defiance, as if he was proving to people that he was tough after pulling out in his last start. Even still, him not appearing at Augusta never entered my mind.

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When he called Arnold Palmer and told him that he wouldn’t be able to play in his tournament at Bay Hill, I tweeted this:

The thought of him not teeing it up at the first major of the year never entered my mind. Then, this happened:

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. The last time that the Masters was contested without Tiger Woods was in 1994. Jordan Spieth was nine months old when Jose Maria Olazabal won the first of his two green jackets on a course where only two of the par-5’s played at over 500 yards. Tiger would make his first appearance the following year, finishing tied for 41st, nineteen shots behind winner Ben Crenshaw, but claiming low amateur honours.

Four green jackets and nine other top-10’s have followed since that year, and the funny thing is that to many people, that’s the record of someone who has underachieved. That’s life for Tiger Woods. Someone who can win five times in a year and have it be looked at as some kind of disappointment. Someone who climbed back to the top spot in the world rankings during a time when his sport is more tightly contested than ever before, and yet, people still question why he isn’t more dominant. Someone who no matter what he does from this point forward, will fairly or unfairly, always be looked at as a “What If” case.

The injuries and the scandals. Swing tweaks and coaching changes. The move from Titleist to Nike. His schedule. Does he really love the game? Everything he does or doesn’t do is dissected and analysed to an insane degree because he moves the needle so much, and to be honest, even if you don’t like the guy, you’d probably admit that the Masters doesn’t feel right without Tiger Woods. So, the question becomes, what does the future hold for the world’s number one ranked golfer and the sport that he towers over? Let’s start with golf in general.

In the immediate term, it’s not a huge deal for golf simply because the Masters is such a special and monumental event that it will do fine even without their main drawing card. Don’t forget that last year’s playoff between Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera was likely the most memorable moment from all of golf in 2013. However, it gets pretty dicey for the PGA Tour in the short term after the Masters is completed. We know that Tiger brings in more fans than any other player on the planet, plus he’s a big ratings draw for Golf Channel/NBC and CBS on a weekly basis. Tiger’s tournament schedule is pretty much set in stone every year, and people are so used to it at this point that they know when they can tune in and see him play. That’s a big deal for the PGA Tour, and without him, events like the Memorial do lose a lot of lustre when he’s not in the field.

In the long term for golf, it all just depends on how Tiger recovers. If he’s healthy and playing well, it means their main draw is back and competing against a great set of young players who are ready to climb the ladder. If he’s not healthy, it indirectly puts a lot of pressure on players like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy to step up and “lead” the PGA Tour, which is something that Rory touched on just a few days ago.

For Tiger himself, you know that the injury must have been pretty bad if he was willing to skip out on Augusta. There’s been a lot of speculation about where he’s at right now in terms of recovery, and how things are going to have to change for him post-surgery. I’m not going to play doctor and tell you what all of this means because frankly, I don’t know how he’s going to recover and honestly, no one does. It’s interesting and potentially insightful that Graham DeLaet had the same surgery a few years ago, but his situation and how he recovered from it have no bearing on how Tiger comes out of this.

What I will say is that it’s obvious that Tiger thought that attempting to play through this and not get operated on would have been a horrible idea. In his mind, this gives him the best possible chance to compete again on the PGA Tour in the near term and hopefully over the long haul as well. At this point, nobody knows when we’re going to see him again, and I doubt that Tiger even knows or has a general idea. Of course he’d like to play at Pinehurst, or make the trip overseas for the Open Championship, but I don’t think we should be expecting any of that to happen. The Ryder Cup is definitely up in the air, and even though Tom Watson says that he desperately wants him on the team, it’s going to be nearly impossible for him to qualify on his own if he misses a significant chunk of time. Watson then using a captain’s pick on a player who’s barely played, when the pressure is on to reclaim the Ryder Cup, is a very risky proposition, but at the same time, how do you not take Tiger Woods?

That’s another question that needs to be asked I suppose, but I honestly don’t think that a move away from Sean Foley would necessarily be related to this injury. Tiger has always been a tinkerer, and realistically, that’s never going to change. If he thinks that he can get an advantage by moving away from Foley and going somewhere else, he’s going to do it. Keep in mind that Foley is his fourth coach, and it’s not like he hadn’t had success with the previous three. One other thing to keep in mind with a coaching change is that the only real reason to do it would be to change the swing, and as Foley has mentioned, Tiger can’t just go back to the swing he had under Butch Harmon or Hank Haney because of the sheer amount of physical trauma that he’s endured over the last few years. Watch his interview with Charlie Rose for a full, in-depth analysis of Foley and his thought process with Tiger.

The last question, as I’m sure you’ve anticipated, is what this means for his chase of Jack Nicklaus and his eighteen major championships. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I hate the debate, but obviously it’s a big deal. Here’s the thing: I don’t think we can say that this surgery has any bearing whatsoever on this chase, positively or negatively. This is a player that won five times last year on the PGA Tour, and as Foley mentions in the video above, that’s Luke Donald’s PGA Tour career in an eight week stretch and Donald is one of the best players of his generation. Yet, there are people who said even before the injury, that he couldn’t win another major. A guy who just won five times on the PGA Tour, in high quality field events at that, can’t win a major? It doesn’t make any logical sense. Certain courses may not set up well for him based on shot shape or whatever else, but writing him off completely seems foolhardy, as Jason Sobel argued a few days ago.

What all of this amounts to is that we’ve got more questions than answers. At this point, much like Tiger himself, we’re just going to have to sit and wait.

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