What's up with Woods? Tiger needs to answer that question himself

What’s up with Woods? Tiger needs to answer that question himself

Tiger Woods withdrew from the Players Championship on Sunday, and revealed that he has been suffering from neck pain for several weeks.
Robert Beck/SI

Yes. Another Tiger Woods post — all about Tiger withdrawing from the Players Championship. You don’t have to read it, nobody will hold it against you.

A few years ago, Jack Nicklaus came to Kansas City to play in a the Champions Tour event. He didn’t play many tournaments even then … he came in to play as a personal favor to Tom Watson and because the tournament allowed one of his sons to play. The whole experience turned out to be a disaster. He flew in through a ferocious storm — Nicklaus would say when the plane mercifully landed that it was the worst and scariest flight he had ever been on. And Jack Nicklaus has been on countless flights.

The weather never really improved. I remember standing under this covering by the clubhouse and watching lightning strike time after time after time … it sounded like the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” out there. Anyway, even beyond the weather, the tournament was a complete wreck. Nobody cared. Few name golfers showed up. The plight of the Kansas City attempt at hosting senior golf would make for a great background to a Kinky Friedman novel … or a graphic comic book. For a while, they tried to make it a “celebrity” thing — sort of an old man’s Pebble Beach Pro Am — and the best celebrity they would get, by far, was the guy who played J. Peterman.* They kept changing golf courses. The weather was always absurd. One year, the wind blew over the press tent. Another year, they canceled play on a perfectly sunny day. Nobody would come. Sponsors kept dropping it. A lot of good people tried hard to make it work, but a combination of bad luck and misguided ideas just sunk the thing.

* Even George Lopez didn’t come … and let’s face it, that guy never misses a chance to play golf. If you’re putting together a foursome at your local muni, there’s at least a 40 percent chance that one of them will be George Lopez.

Anyway, Nicklaus showed up, and the weather was disastrous enough that they had to cancel Sunday’s play and push the thing to Monday. It was clear that Nicklaus had places he needed to go on Monday, courses to design, clients to meet, family to be around and so on. It was clear that Nicklaus, seeing the disastrous state of the tournament, would not have minded leaving about 45 minutes after he came. Also, he was not anywhere near contention — he was not playing well. Nobody could have blamed him if he had said Sunday night, after being in town for a few days, “Hey, you know what guys? My hip’s hurting. My back’s hurting. My head’s hurting. I’m gonna take off here but thanks for the invitation and, you know, best of luck.”

But Jack Nicklaus canceled his Monday activities and stayed to play the final round of the tournament. Why? Because … well, that’s just what Jack Nicklaus does.

I was thinking about this Sunday when Tiger Woods pulled out of the Players’ Championship after seven holes with some sort of mysterious neck injury that he says might be a bulging disk. Nobody questions Tiger Woods’ toughness — the guy won the U.S. Open on one leg for crying out loud — but I’m not sure how you could call this neck injury anything but mysterious.

– It’s “mysterious” because he never mentioned it before.

– It’s “mysterious” because Friday, point blank, to direct questioning, Woods said that physically he felt great, perfect, “absolutely 100 percent,” and Sunday he talked about how his neck has been hurting for quite a while and the pain has been excruciating. One of the Tigers is lying. Many assume it’s the “I’m healthy” Tiger. But maybe not.

– It’s “mysterious” because, reportedly, he did not go to the physical training trailer all week and nobody noticed him even grimacing the first few holes of the round — in fact the New York Times reports a fan saying “At least he’s in a good mood today,” during the early part of the round.

– It’s “mysterious” because Tiger Woods was already two-over for the day and a million shots out of contention when he quit and walked out.

Mysterious injuries or not, I suspect this comeback has gone nothing all like how Tiger Woods envisioned it. I don’t think he knew quite what to expect when it came to fan reaction, player reaction, that sort of thing. This tough and distant golfer seemed strangely — even touchingly — worried about being booed and taunted. But I think he expected something from himself. I think expected to play great golf. I would bet he was hitting the ball really well during his “high pressure” practice rounds and was sure that would carry over to the tournaments. I suspect he probably felt like his mental toughness, which had never let him down before, would pull him through. Many people believed that now, with a world to prove wrong, he would find an even higher plane in his own golfing genius. Tiger may have believed that himself.

Well, instead his swing turned into an absolute wreck. His game has fallen apart. After showing off some brilliance and then fading at the Masters, he missed the cut in Charlotte — a golf course that seems to have been designed with his game in mind — and he just barely made the cut at the Players Championship. And it was only his magical touch around the greens that kept him from shooting 80 and going into a David Duval-like spin.

I sometimes think about Duval. I don’t think people talk about his story enough. He won three times in 1997, four more times in 1998, four more times in 1999. He was a truly great golfer. He was Tiger Lite. He almost won the Masters three times, and did win the British Open in 2001. He was ferociously serious about the game — so serious that he hardly seemed like a real person — and the smart money was on him to be Tiger Woods’ fiercest rival.

And then, suddenly, Duval lost it. Completely lost it. Maybe it was injuries. Maybe it was a crisis of confidence. Maybe it was vertigo — that was the talk for a while. Maybe he just lost interest in being the best golfer in the world … Duval’s interviews started to show another side of him, a human side. He talked about books he read and vacations he took and interests he had. Maybe the reasons are not as simple as words. His game descended into the abyss. He left. He has come back, looking refreshed and like he loves the game again, and he has had a few nice moments, a few in-contention moments, even though he lost his PGA Tour card.

This stuff really happens — this isn’t just Duval. It happens for different reasons. Golf takes a complicated set of skills and mental resiliency. Tom Watson was the best player in the world when his putts stopped dropping. Johnny Miller was a pin-seeking-missile when his putts stopped dropping. Ian Baker-Finch was a British Open champion and world-respected nice guy and grinder when he completely lost his swing. Nick Price was the best player in the world in 1993 and 1994 and he found that he did not particularly like it — the pressure, the demands, the never-ending requests squeezed the joy out of the game for him. He could not sustain that level, and he did not. He was a good golfer after 1994, but never again great.

This is the reality of golf at the highest levels. The game is not meant to be tamed. Even Nicklaus went through lulls in his brilliant career when people wondered if he could regain his greatness. The difference in Nicklaus’ career — against pretty much anyone else in golf history — is that for more than two decades he would recover from those lulls and crest again. This, to me, is the core of the brilliant career of Nicklaus. He played golf better than anyone who had ever played, then faded a bit, then played golf even better, then faded a bit, then played golf better still. He reshaped his body. He reshaped his mind. He won seven Major Championships as a young man in his 20s, won seven more in his middling years from 30-to-35, won won three more as he approached and hit 40, and then won the Masters one more time when the lingering story was that he was done — he was 46. There has never been another career like it — except maybe the career of John Travolta.

And what did it take for Nicklaus to keep coming back, keep finding new motivations, keep stifling the doubts of the years, keep regaining his balance? Well, there are a thousand answers — the inspiration of family, a rock solid swing that never left him, steely nerve, all that — but I believe, as corny as it sounds, that Jack Nicklaus knew himself. He knew what he was about. He knew why he played golf, knew why it mattered, knew why it didn’t matter, knew what winning meant and also knew what losing meant. He knew what golf meant in his life, and what it did not mean. He knew what he had left in him and knew what it would take to get him there. It seems to me that Nicklaus’ great mental gift was a simple one: He deeply understood his own talents and his own failings.

Tiger? Well, we will see. One of the world’s great growth industries is predicting the golfing future of Tiger Woods, and, of course, none of us know. He remains four major championships away from Jack Nicklaus’ record, and there are some who think he will never get there, some who think he will grind his way past it over the next decade, some who think he will regain his game and blow right by that record leaving little room for doubt in the greatest-ever question. But nobody knows.

And nobody knows what Sunday’s withdrawal 12 holes from the finish really means. It could mean a serious injury — a balky back has vandalized many great golfing talents. Then again, it also could mean a Tiger Woods confidence crossroads — maybe he felt some discomfort and was just looking for a way out. I will never forget Jack Nicklaus, approaching 70 years old, sticking around at a second-rate golf tournament through rain and pointlessness. He stuck around because he is Jack Nicklaus. He knows what that means. Tiger, I think, is still figuring that part out.

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