Simon Veness asks whether Tiger Woods' recurring injury problems spell the end of his career
Is Tiger Woods' latest back problem the beginning of the end of his career? Simon Veness ponders.
By Simon Veness
Last Updated: 20/03/14 10:39am
All those questions - and many more - resounded around my corner of Florida on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning after it was announced Woods is missing the tournament he practically owns - this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational - because of ongoing back spasms.
The loss of the world No.1 from the event before a ball has been struck is a major blow to what was shaping up as a pivotal event in the season. More importantly, it is a Major blow to Tiger himself.
Since the young Eldrick Tont 'Tiger' Woods first burst on to the scene as a golfing supernova in 1995, he has never failed to appear at the Masters.
On his debut 19 years ago, he won the gold medal as the Low Amateur, and, while he missed the cut the following year, still as an amateur, in his first appearance as a pro in 1997, he swept to a stunning 12-shot victory over Tom Kite with a record score of 270 (18 under par) and a legend wasn't so much born as shot into the stratosphere.
Ever since, Woods has revelled in the magnolia-strewn fields of Augusta, winning another three titles and always being in contention, even in the lean years since his last Major victory in 2008.
He has never missed the cut since he turned pro and his 2012 finish of 40th is far away his lowest. Since he last won there in 2005, he has seven finishes in the top six. To all intents and purposes (even more than his record-equalling eight wins at the spiffy Bay Hill Club & Lodge), the Masters is HIS tournament.
It is the event he most lives for, most thrives on - and will be most missed from if the current 'spasms' are more serious than he continues to let on.
We now know that they are, at the very least, borderline acute. Tiger has only ever failed to play his favourite non-Major event once before, during his brief self-imposed exile at the start of 2010. He loves Arnie and would never miss the great man's popular event unless he had very good reason.
And not being able to swing a golf club properly seems like a pretty powerful reason this week, especially as it absolutely begs the even bigger question, if not now, when?
The 14-time Major winner (and we have been writing that phrase for almost six years now, as further proof of the march of Father Time) was last seen grimacing and wincing around the Blue Monster at Doral, when he shot a record-high (for him) of 78 in the final round almost two weeks ago.
As grimacing and wincing goes, it was close to the fabled '11', a level beyond which golfers should most definitely not still be swinging a club but which has become all too common for Tiger, the greatest player of the past 17 years, yet one who seems just as likely to be reduced to a shambling wreck on any given week rather than the all-conquering champion of Bay Hill, and beyond.
His back problems have become headline material after he fell to his knees following a shot from the fairway on the back nine at The Barclays last year, a moment that drew audible gasps from the gallery but also a million shutter snaps from the massed ranks of the photographers.
Ever since, Tiger's on-off back problems have been as much the story as his finishes, and his general health is very often the first, second and third question on the media agenda, in part because his responses to questions about "his baulky back" are largely anodyne fare.
It is just a question of "spasms," or "a little stiff from a soft hotel bed" (cue lots of guffaws from the media), or even "just following the protocols" (the latter in reply to a question of whether he'd had an MRI).
Throw in last year's elbow injury and an Achilles problem in 2012, and Woods is not so much a prime-time athlete as a walking medical chart, a doctor's example of how a body breaks down under relentless repetitive strain.
However, few people outside his inner circle REALLY know the full severity of the problem and Woods himself certainly isn't about to enlighten us, hence the all-encompassing focus on this latest back-related withdrawal.
Tiger is still only 38, not usually a worrying age for a golfer, if a little past the prime for Major winners of 34. However, the average age of the last 14 champions of any of the Big Four is just 28, an increasingly ominous stat for the Bay Hill Dominator.
Of the current crop, only Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els have grabbed a Major at 38 or older, Phil at last year's Open Championship, shortly after he turned 43, as well as the 2010 Masters when he was 39, while Ernie was 42 when he claimed the 2012 Open crown.
Just as importantly, only THREE golfers have won five majors after the age of 35 - Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan - and all three hail from an era of far less stress and strain, fewer tournaments (and competitors), and no back spasms.
And, unless you are from the Planet Tharg, you will know Woods still needs another five Big Ones to top the Golden Bear's record haul of 18.
That has been his sole motivation for the past six years. Sure, he loves being world No.1, but that is not his incentive for turning up on the practice range day after day, adding hours in the weights room and putting his increasingly tortured body through the kind of strains that would exhaust a 28-year-old, let alone someone 10 years their senior.
And this is no ordinary body, remember. Major knee surgery in 2008 put him out for the rest of that year after his epic US Open win while his ongoing "spasms" are clearly more than a passing concern.
In truth, we could be looking at the last real days of a sporting phenomenon, a golfing colossus. As I said at the start, if two weeks' rest is not enough, how much WILL it take to get Tiger back in the hunt? Because it is not just a question of feeling better and then turning up.
His form this year has been wretched, the worst start to any year since he turned pro, and the Masters is not renowned for being a stress-free zone, either mentally or physically. Sure, Woods has competed before with scant preparation (in 2010), and still been a competitive factor, finishing fourth.
But he is now four years further on, with lord knows how many more "spasms" under the bridge. He will clearly make every effort to get himself physically able to tee off at Augusta on April 10, but I doubt if even he can say what kind of effort he will be able to put out - and whether it will be sustainable in the long term.
Backs are funny things. It doesn't take a lot to incapacitate the strongest, and ongoing lumbar concerns have spelled the end of many notable sporting careers, even in golf. Today, we have to wonder if Tiger is facing the beginning of the end of his big-time career.
No Woods does, of course, mean we will have a new champion of the Palmer Invitational for the first time in three years, and there will be plenty of other choice morsels to enjoy around Arnie's Acres, a stunning 7,419-yard par 72 course where the biffers and big-hitters tend to thrive but which also requires a surgeon's touch around the greens.
The course set-up is much admired and draws a big chunk of the world's best, including reigning Masters champ Adam Scott, the in-form Henrik Stenson and current US sensation Patrick Reed, he of the three wins in his last 14 tournaments and "I think of myself as top 5" material, that has also grabbed a few headlines in the past two weeks.
The Invitational is also the 'home' event for several familiar names, notably the current US Open champ Justin Rose, 2010 US Open winner Graeme McDowell and Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter, all of whom will be able to sleep in their own beds each night (and not take a chance on those risky 'soft' hotel mattresses).
Lee Westwood will be hoping to put together a few good rounds and halt his current world rankings plummet (36 and falling - his worst since 2007) while Welshman Jamie Donaldson can show why he is currently a major European form horse with two top 10 finishes on the US tour already this year and a firm grip on one of the nine automatic Ryder Cup selections for Gleneagles in September.
The weather forecast is set fair - temperatures should be around 28C, with only a minor chance of rain on Saturday - and Arnie himself has been in rare fine form in the lead-up to the event, headlining ticket commercials with a video of him with nail-clippers in hand pruning one of the fairways.
"Got you, you son of a gun!" he chirrups as he cuts down an errant strand of grass, totally belying his 84 years of age but underlining his legend as one of America's most beloved sporting figures.
Sadly, Old Father Time may also be saying that to Tiger Woods this week.