Maybe we were just focused on the wrong body part.
Ever since Tiger Woods’ SUV veered off course at the end of his driveway in Florida nearly six years ago, the questions have been about his head. And all the while, it’s the rest of his body – the left side mostly – that’s been breaking down before our eyes. Maybe, like Icarus, it turns out Woods just wasn’t built to go the distance.
He broke into big-time golf at 20, thin as a 2-iron and swinging with all the abandon of a kid. He putted without nerves, hit the ball farther and passed so many career signposts so breathtakingly fast, and with such ease, that his future seemed to be on cruise-control already.
But Woods is 38 now, and despite sparking the fitness craze that revolutionized professional golf, he’s falling apart like a used car.
Woods announced Tuesday he would skip the Masters for the first time in his career to begin yet another rehab from the latest of at least a half-dozen surgeries. For all the comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, in light of this latest breakdown, it might be more apt to look at Mickey Mantle.
A chain-reaction series of injuries hobbled the Yankee slugger through the final few seasons of a career that should have been even better – not to mention longer. Mantle’s bad luck, as one writer memorably put it, was to be “a million-dollar talent propped up on dime-store knees.”
At this point it’s worth noting that Mantle had a drinking problem. And that he contributed to his own demise as a ballplayer by staying out late too many nights, something to which Woods has already pleaded guilty. But the way the injuries dogged Mantle at the end, sapping both his power and speed, may turn out to be the more instructive parallel.
Woods’ latest surgery, called a microdiscectomy, was to relieve the pain from a pinched nerve in his back. Problems with his back first surfaced last summer, then resumed this spring, culminating in Woods’ withdrawal from the Honda Classic and a final-round 78 a week later at Doral, where he looked visibly weakened.
A bad back is worrisome enough. That it arrives at the end of a string of injuries to Woods’ left leg, knee and elbow, as well as both Achilles tendons – and almost all within the last half-dozen years – makes you wonder whether it’s part of a larger pattern.
In a statement on his website, Woods called the setback “frustrating” but “something my doctors advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health.”
The website also pointed out that swinging a golf club could have caused the pinched nerve, and as anybody who’s ever swung one for a couple of rounds can attest, it can damage plenty of other body parts as well.
Woods has been doing that since age 3, and until the surgeries began piling up, it seemed as if he could go on doing it long enough to win more major tournaments that anyone had. But he’s been stuck at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open, and suddenly it’s relevant that he’s playing a game that has knocked just about every other great champion off his pedestal by the mid-to-late 30s.
Woods certainly knows the litany: Bobby Jones retired at 28; Tom Watson and Byron Nelson never won another after 33; Arnold Palmer, 34; and Walter Hagen, 36. Gary Player won only one after 38 and Nick Faldo his last at 39. Ben Hogan was an outlier, winning into his early 40s.
Nicklaus, the one that always mattered most to Woods, won all but one of his by age 40, covering an 18-year span. And the last one, the 1986 Masters at age 46, was what people mean by the phrase, “catching lightning in a bottle.”
Woods may still be good for one of those, as well as a few more regular tour events, which he’s continued to win with some regularity. More important, perhaps, he isn’t conceding anything. He needs four more PGA Tour wins to pass Sam Snead and five more majors to go by Nicklaus.
“There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break,” Woods said Tuesday on his website. “As I’ve said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”
Even if Woods is right, this much is already different. A lot of those kids he inspired to take up the game blow their drives past his, and they don’t spit up leads the way Woods’ peers used to the second his name popped up on the leaderboard. The last time some of them saw Woods make a putt that mattered in a major was on TV.
So it matters less, at the moment anyway, where Woods’ head is at than how quickly – maybe even whether – the rest of his body heals. Deep as that bunker he was standing in looked before, his shot looks a lot tougher now.
Tiger Woods’ injuries over the years
- December 1994 – Surgery on left knee to remove two benign tumors and scar tissue.
- Dec. 13, 2002 – Surgery on left knee to remove fluid inside and outside the ACL and remove benign cysts from his left knee. Misses the season opener in 2003.
- August 2007 – Ruptures the ACL in his left knee while running on a golf course after the British Open, but is able to keep playing. Wins five of the last six tournaments he plays, including the PGA Championship for his 13th major.
- April 15, 2008 – Two days after the Masters, has arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage.
- May 2008 – Advised weeks before the U.S. Open that he has two stress fractures of the left tibia and should rest for six weeks, the first three weeks on crutches.
- June 24, 2008 – Eight days after winning the U.S. Open, has surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee by using a tendon from his right thigh. Additional cartilage damage is repaired. Misses the rest of the season and does not return until the Match Play Championship at the end of February 2009.
- December 2008 – Injured his Achilles tendon in his right leg as he was running while preparing to return to golf.
- Nov. 27, 2009 – Hospitalized overnight with a sore neck and a cut lip that required five stitches when the SUV he was driving ran over a fire hydrant and into a tree.
- May 9, 2010 – Withdrew from the final round of The Players Championship, citing a bulging disk. He later said it was a neck issue that caused tingling in his right side, and that it first became a problem as he began practicing harder for his return to the Masters a month earlier.
- April 10, 2011 – Injures his left Achilles tendon hitting from an awkward stance below Eisenhower’s Tree on the 17th at Augusta National. Withdraws from the Wells Fargo Championship.
- May 12, 2011 – Withdraws from The Players Championship after a 42 on the front nine. Diagnosed with an MCL sprain in his left knee and in his left Achilles tendon. He misses the next two months, including two majors, returning at the Bridgestone Invitational.
- March 11, 2012 – Feels tightness in his left Achilles tendon and withdraws after 11 holes of the final round in the Cadillac Championship at Doral. He wins in his next start at Bay Hill, his first PGA Tour victory since the scandal in his personal life.
- Aug. 24, 2012 – Moves stiffly during the second round of The Barclays and later says he felt pain in his lower back, which he attributed to a soft mattress in his hotel room.
- June 13, 2013 – Is seen shaking his left arm during the opening round of the U.S. Open. He later says it’s a left elbow strain that he injured while winning The Players Championship a month earlier. He misses two tournaments and returns at the British Open.
- Aug. 11, 2013 – Said he felt tightness in his back during the final round of the PGA Championship.
- Aug. 21, 2013 – Two weeks after the PGA Championship, he only chips and putts on the back nine of the pro-am at The Barclays, complaining of a stiff neck and back that he attributed to a soft bed in the hotel. By Sunday at The Barclays, he dropped to his knees after one shot because of back spasms.
- March 2, 2014 – Withdraws after 13 holes of the final round at The Honda Classic because of lower back pain and spams, describing it as similar to what he felt at The Barclays.
- March 9, 2014 – Plays the final 12 holes with pain in his lower back, saying it began to flare up after hitting out of the bunker from an awkward lie in the Cadillac Championship at Doral. He shoots 78, the highest score of his career in a final round.
- March 19, 2014 – Withdraws from the Arnold Palmer Invitational because of the persistent pain in his back. He was the two-time defending champion.
- March 31, 2014 – Has surgery in Utah for a pinched nerve.
- April 1, 2014 – Announced he will miss the Masters and not return to golf until the summer.