PALM HARBOR, Fla. — The news that Tiger Woods will skip next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill hit different players in different ways.
Many were still trying to figure out what to make of it.
“I’m worried about him,” said Will MacKenzie, who was 1 under par (69-72) and certain to make the cut at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, where Brendon de Jonge (67-69) was leading at 6 under.
MacKenzie continued: “I’m worried about his body. He’s a year younger than me, and I know what I feel. He’s really beat up. Swinging with a bad knee is one thing, but you never know when a bad back is going to give out through the ball. Think about how hard he swings with the driver.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Stewart Cink (69-73), who also will easily make the cut at the Valspar. “It just seemed like, from reading his earlier announcement, this wasn’t ever going to be a short, three- or four-week break. He’ll come back when he’s ready. There’s nothing for us to worry about. We just hope his spirit’s okay and he’s not too down.”
Woods’ absence next week will be especially glaring, given his eight Tour wins at Bay Hill, which is tied with Sam Snead for the most victories in a single event. Snead won a Tour event at 52 (he’s the oldest to do so) and made the cut at the 1973 U.S. Open at 61 (again, the oldest to do so).
At just 39, Woods is inviting questions as to whether he’ll ever win again. He hasn’t played since he withdrew with back pain during the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines last month, a setback that was followed by his statement that his latest injury was not related to his 2014 surgery, that his level of play was unacceptable, and that he would be returning to the Tour only when he deemed his game ready.
“I spoke to Arnold today and told him that I will not play in his tournament this year. I’m sorry I won’t be in Orlando next week,” Woods wrote in a short note posted to his website Friday afternoon. “I’ve put in a lot of time and work on my game and I’m making strides, but like I’ve said, I won’t return to the PGA Tour until my game is tournament ready and I can compete at the highest level. I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta.”
Back in 2011 Greg Norman predicted a scandal-tainted Woods would never win another major. It seemed like a bold prediction then, and when Woods won a total of eight Tour events in 2012 and 2013, returning to the No. 1 ranking, it seemed as if he might soon prove Norman wrong.
Today, Woods, still at 14 majors, has fallen to 79th in the world. His statement Friday comes as he tries to atone for a grim 2014 in which back surgery kept him out of two majors and seemed to affect him at the British Open and PGA Championship. Woods also is trying to piece together a new swing under new instructor Chris Como, and battling chipping problems that surfaced again as Woods shot a second-round 82 and missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in January, his first start of the year.
Bay Hill is traditionally the final start Woods makes before the Masters in early April, which puts his attendance at Augusta in doubt. He did not play in the Masters last year after undergoing surgery on his back. It was the first time he had missed the event in his professional career, and the first time since 1995 that he was not in the field at Augusta.
Woods has won the Masters four times, most recently in 2005.
There are only two Tour stops between Bay Hill and the Masters: the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio on March 26-29, and the Shell Houston Open in Humble, Texas, April 2-5. Woods traditionally hasn’t played in either of them, and it seems unlikely he will start now.
What should we expect going forward? Where is he with his new swing? Has he solved his chipping problems? Is he taking next week off because his game is still a mess or his body is still a mess? Or is it both? How much is he really practicing?
“I spent quite a bit of time the last couple of weeks down at Tiger’s house, trying to be a good running mate and going through workouts and practicing with him,” said Notah Begay, Woods’ longtime friend and former college teammate. “I can attest to the fact that things are improving and that he is putting in some solid workdays. It is just not at the status that he wants it.”
The last time Woods parachuted into Augusta without having played a Tour event all year was 2010, when he returned from his sex scandal.
He tied for fourth.