Another injury to his left knee derails Tiger's comeback, maybe permanently

Tiger Woods has not ruled out playing in the Players Championship.
Robert Beck/SI

To doubt the professional abilities of Tiger Woods used to be something like contrarianism for its own sake. A bunch of dimple-heads would kick it around and somebody had to pick Sergio Garcia or Bob May or Rory Sabbatini, but such a move always felt like eating steak tartare or drinking tequila shots — impress your friends now, pay later.

But if there were ever a time to doubt Woods, this is it. In fact, let's go all the way today and say he's finished, at least in the old-Tiger, straw-that-stirs-the-drink kind of way. Woods announced Tuesday that he will miss next week's Wells Fargo Championship because he hurt his left leg (yes, that left leg) while hitting his second shot from underneath the Eisenhower tree left of the 17th fairway in the third round of the Masters.

"Woods suffered a Grade 1 mild medial collateral ligament sprain to his left knee and a mild strain to his left Achilles tendon," said a statement on his web site.

When will he return to action? Woods doesn't know, but the Players Championship begins May 12. What the release writer wants us to know is that this is a "mild" setback. Um, okay.

Don't think about how often breaking news gets downplayed even when its significance can't be overstated. Disregard that Woods has had his left knee operated on four times, most recently and significantly after his myth-making, 2008 U.S. Open victory. While in rehab he also ruptured his Achilles. He was treated by a Canadian doctor who would become the target of a federal investigation. And now, in the throes of the longest slump of his career — it's been nearly 20 months since his last Tour win — Woods has reinjured his knee and his Achilles. Tuesday's press release reminds me of a great gag in the movie Wag the Dog, whereupon Dustin Hoffman's spin-doctor character responds to each escalating mishap with, "This is nothing!"

According to his web site, Woods will not be getting cut on again, and that's one positive. "Doctors have advised rest and cold-water therapy, and soft tissue treatment will also occur later this week," the statement says. A statement from Woods says, "I personally contacted [Wells Fargo] tournament officials and expressed my regret in not being able to play. This is an outstanding event, but I must follow doctors' orders to get better."

Woods, who has amassed 71 Tour victories, including 14 majors, is still only 35, but you can't help but wonder if those will be the numbers he takes into the Hall of Fame. How long before his left knee is hamburger, if it isn't already? You knew this might be coming as soon as you saw Woods grimace after he hit his second shot on 18 at Augusta on Sunday. It was the same pained countenance we saw at Torrey Pines, minus the heroics.

The 2011 Masters saw Woods hit the ball better than he did in 2010, but again he tied for fourth, the result mostly of a Grade 1 mild medial collateral sprain to his putting stroke. You could take the result as a positive (he played much better), or a negative (he played much better and still lost to three younger, fitter guys). Either way he never went in for moral victories and he never will. That's one thing we loved about him. You have to write about Woods that way, in the past tense. As much as we enjoy watching Woods the golfer and want him to persevere — and most golfers, I think, do want him to persevere — so much has happened, so quickly.

He now must overcome faulty putting, a wayward long game — which put him under the Eisenhower tree in the first place — an emboldened cavalry of 20-somethings, a broken family, the loss of much of the public's goodwill, and now, also, his trick knee and iffy Achilles, again.

No, Woods will not play Quail Hollow, where he won in 2007 but shot 74-79 to miss the cut last year — his low point between the ropes. Still, maybe he'll overcome everything. Maybe he'll win five more majors and break Jack Nicklaus's record. In fact, shout it from the rooftops. Impress your friends. But be prepared to pay later.

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