AKRON, Ohio — Tiger Woods has a shot at the Grand Slam this year. The wrong kind of Grand Slam.
When Open Championship officials announced that Woods had withdrawn from their event at Royal Troon in Scotland this month, that made three straight majors Tiger has missed. If he doesn’t play the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, which was moved up on the schedule to the end of July, Tiger will have missed all four Grand Slam events this year, a first for him.
Anyone who saw Woods stepping gingerly off the podium at the Quicken Loans National tournament that he serves as host for last week would be surprised to see him tee it up at Baltusrol.
But it’s Tiger. You just never know. Backs are delicate and intricate parts of the body. If you’ve ever had a bad back, you know that there is almost no other part of the body you can move without feeling it in your back.
There are two questions about Tiger. When will he be back? Or, will he ever be back?
At Congressional, Tiger said he simply wasn’t ready, was making progress but he needed more time. Details? None were forthcoming. So speculation on how bad his back might be is a waste of good digital paper.
We know this much: The odds are high that Woods will miss all four tournaments that are most dear to him this year. He is 40 and 2016 is a year he can never get back. It is a year of missed opportunities in the majors, and it will be 32 straight majors (if no PGA) without a title for him. The idea that he might come back and starting winning tournaments and majors again is a far-fetched one right now. He is so far away from that. Somewhere, he may be hitting balls and practicing. Or maybe he is playing soccer with his kids. He’s got a life, we don’t see what he’s really up to because we don’t need to.
He famously named his yacht Privacy because it’s the one commodity he values so much and it’s the one thing he has so little of. So about the back? We get rumors, not many facts.
Woods was apparently the most candid during last weekend’s CBS telecast from Congressional when he joined Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo in the broadcast tower for a spell. Woods talked the same talk about his return. Vague things about staying patient. But he did admit that he was following doctor’s orders and making sure he was healthy this time, and that was something he has failed to do in the past. Tiger didn’t say so directly but the implication was that he may have needed a second and third procedure on his back because he tried to come back too soon. My analysis, not Tiger’s words.
Tiger has always approached injuries with a mentality of a solider athlete. He thought he could muscle his way through physical setbacks, through lifting weights or running miles or generally pretending to be Superman. He played for months after he ruptured ligaments in his knee while running after the 2007 British Open. He kept playing, managing the pain, because he somehow kept winning. You don’t quit when you’re winning.
It might have been a mistake. After the 2008 Masters, he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee but then—he said later—he suffered double fractures in his tibia during the recovery process. Probably from pushing himself too hard, too soon and too fast. It led to maybe his most memorable major title, the U.S. Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate, where Woods kept doubling over in pain after shots.
It was a self-inflicted pain, in many ways. Finally, it seems, Tiger has gained the patience to recover.
Maybe he’ll play again in a tournament this year, maybe he won’t. Some writers in the Bridgestone Invitational were throwing around guesses. The PGA at Baltusrol? Nah. The Safeway event in Napa in October? Possibly. The Hero World Challenge, his own event that features a small field (under 20), no cut and an exclusive venue, Albany, a luxury resort in the Bahamas? This idea was the conjecture winner.
All we know for sure is this scorecard: 18 major championships; four knee surgeries; three back surgeries; zero tournaments played in 2016, including none of the first three majors.
It’s a long road ahead for Tiger and there is more than one road to follow. Tiger seemed awfully comfortable in that broadcast booth with Nantz.
Who knows? Probably not even Tiger.