Tour & News

How Does Tiger Woods Come Back From This? He Might Not

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Tiger Woods withdrew while playing his 12th hole Thursday at Torrey Pines’ North Course.

Nothing about Tiger Woods makes sense, and it rarely has, and this is partly why so many of us have made a career out of being wrong about him. I hope I’m wrong again, but I can’t see how he comes back from this.

Woods’s body is basically a late-stage Jenga tower—one misstep, one strong gust of wind and the whole thing crumbles into a million pieces. It doesn’t even matter whether or not he has a club in his hand, as he did when he withdrew with back spasms after 11 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday. He could have been jogging and stepped in a hole, or golfing and slipped in some pine straw, both of which he’s done. He could have dinged his Achilles, again, or his left knee, again, or his neck or back, again.

“It must be a little soul-destroying for him,” Peter Kostis said on air during Golf Channel’s telecast of the foggy Farmers.

Well, yeah. But at least Woods, 56th in the world and falling fast, has kept us guessing. We were all focused on the spasms between his ears and the “chip yips” that popped up at the Hero World Challenge in December, the short-game goblins that resurfaced again as Woods shot a career-worst 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Then his back went out.

Hank Haney, who used to be Tiger’s buddy—one book and two coaches ago—pretty much nailed it when he tweeted, “Bad back, driver and short game issues, lack of practice, the combo platter.” And the most damning fact might be the one no one is talking about in the wake of recent developments: When Woods won eight Tour events in 2012 and 2013 he came nowhere close to winning any majors, the tournaments he craves most. He came down with the major yips long before he got the chip yips.

Woods will not win the Masters in nine weeks; that much is obvious. I wonder if he’ll even play in it. Even if his back is magically healed, his short game is a far cry from what it needs to be to score at Augusta National, and no one knows that better than Woods himself. Why play if you can’t win?

The bigger question is how much Woods will play the rest of this year, because we’ve suddenly reverted to 2014, and 2013, and 2012, the press dutifully standing by as Woods cuts out early amid a word cloud full of “reps” and “protocols” and “old motor patterns” and “misfiring glutes.”

“He’s impinging his right side now because of his golf swing,” said Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee on the air from the Farmers. But isn’t Woods’s latest new coach, Chris Como, supposed to be an expert in biomechanics? If Woods were impinging anything, wouldn’t Como know about it and put a stop to it if possible? Didn’t Woods hire Como in part because there’s been way too much impinging going on already?

Woods lost nine months of what should have been the prime of his career after reconstructive knee surgery in 2008. He gave up four more months in 2009 and 2010 as he went into hiding after his sex scandal. Then his body started acting up again. He WD’d at the Players in 2010 and 2011, at the WGC-Cadillac in 2012, and at the Honda and the WGC-Bridgestone last year. Another WD seemed imminent at the PGA at Valhalla last August, but he stuck it out—we were wrong again—only to miss the cut by a mile.

The Tiger WD Watch is such an old story it’s a wonder we still fall for it, but Woods’s career is like a gruesome highway wreck: You see it up ahead, you tell yourself you’ll look away, but as you drive by something turns your gaze that way until you wind up gasping at the vivid awfulness.

Woods struggling at Torrey Pines, where he’s won eight times as a pro, is also an old story. Then-rookie playing partner Brendan Steele beat Woods by five (70-75) in the last round of the 2011 Farmers, and Jordan Speith dusted Woods by nine over the first 36 holes last year. Woods had to make a 10-footer on 18 to shoot 79 the next day, and missed the 54-hole cut. On Thursday, Woods fought Torrey Pines South to an even-par draw until he double-bogeyed the second hole, his 11th (and last) of the day.

“I still don’t think he’s that far off,” playing partner Billy Horschel said of Woods.

Does Horschel see something we can’t? Maybe. Maybe Woods will be OK if he doesn’t try to wait out two fog delays, as he did at Torrey, or maybe he’ll finally get healthy again by following in the footsteps of Jason Dufner, who shed 20 pounds in the off-season by giving up gluten and junk food. Maybe dropping weight would help Woods’s fragile back, and it’s certainly worth a try, but then there’s his suddenly fragile mind to consider again. And the fact that this Tour now belongs not to Woods but to much younger stars like Horschel, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Patrick Reed, Jordan Speith, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka and others, none of whom is burdened with anything close to Woods’s mental and physical scar tissue.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how he comes back from this.

Tour Confidential: Was 2008 U.S. Open Tiger Woods' Greatest Victory?
With Tiger Woods returning to Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open this week, our panel debates whether his 2008 U.S. Open victory there should be considered his greatest triumph.

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