In the wake of Tiger Woods’ announcement that he will miss next week’s Masters Tournament after having surgery on his back, allow me to save you some time by summarizing the initial reaction from social media and message boards and water coolers around the world.
He’s done. It’s over. All of it. The chase for Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship record. The quest to be the best golfer ever. It’s finished. Kaput. He had a nice run, but it’s time to move on. Thanks for the memories, Tiger.
Forgive me for pumping the brakes on public opinion and stifling more than a little speculation. I’m just not ready to write the guy off so quickly. That’s not to say I believe he’ll unquestionably break Nicklaus’ record – I didn’t maintain that even before his back became an issue – but I’m also not convinced that we’ve reached some sort of finality, either.
In order to explain this view, let me relay an old story you probably remember.
This now-famous story centers on Woods’ visit with a doctor prior to the 2008 U.S. Open, when he was suffering with a torn ACL and multiple leg fractures. It turned out to be a pointless visit, because Woods was advised to remain on crutches for three weeks, then rest for another three afterward.
“Tiger looked the guy in the eye,” his then-coach Hank Haney once recalled, “and said, 'I'm playing in the U.S. Open and I'm going to win.' Then he started putting on his shoes and told me, ‘We're going to go practice.’ It's just incredible."
The rest was, literally, history. Woods won the tournament at Torrey Pines in a Monday playoff, and then sat out the remainder of the year to recuperate.
If we’ve learned anything about Woods after Tuesday’s announcement, it’s that he now follows doctors’ recommendations and is taking necessary efforts to aid the longevity of his career.
Think about it: He could have defied medical orders once again. He could have sacrificed the year to compete in the Masters. He could have been stubborn once again.
Instead, at age 38, Woods is playing it safe and making the proper call.
That doesn’t mean he’ll return in two or four or six months completely healthy and ready to win majors again. And really, if his back was in too much pain to swing the club, he couldn’t have defied doctors’ orders even if he wanted to.
But the microdiscectomy surgery that Woods recently underwent should be considered more of a positive than a negative. It means that rather than trying to continue playing through pain as he did at the Honda Classic before withdrawing and the WGC-Cadillac Championship, he is making a point of looking more toward the long-term than the short-term.
“I'm absolutely optimistic about the future," Woods said in a press release on his personal website. "There are a couple [of] records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam [Snead]and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine."
In this case, the precautionary measure may have also been a necessary one. Woods is five years younger than Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, each of whom have won majors in their 40s. If they can do it – both after suffering career-affecting injuries, as well – there’s no reason to believe Woods can’t similarly win during the back-nine of his career.
That said, Woods is an old 38. He started playing competitive golf and enduring lengthy, grueling practice sessions at such a young age that he might have as much as a decade more tread on the tires than fellow professional of the same age. Since turning 30, he’s endured major injuries to his knee, Achilles, neck and now back – all of which are unequivocally important in maintaining a successful golf swing.
Through it all, he’s maintained the world’s No. 1 ranking and status as the game’s most talented player. He’s no stranger to the three R’s – rest, rehabilitation and recovery – and certainly isn’t unfamiliar with working hard to achieve those goals.
All of which should lead to the following conclusion: This is not the end of the line. It’s too shortsighted to believe that Woods won’t recover from this injury as he has in the past. It’s too careless to think he won’t return as the game’s best player once again.
That’s probably not the popular opinion right now. You might think he’s done. You might think the chase to catch Jack is over. You might think he’s doomed – if such a term is the proper description – to be the second-leading major winner ever.
The most riveting subplot in sports will only become more intriguing when he returns. There are plenty of people writing off Woods’ chances following this latest announcement. But if there’s another thing we’ve learned about him over the years, it’s that he loves proving people wrong.