DORAL, Fla. – When he wants to, when he’s frustrated by a question or feels like he’s answered it already, or he’s tired or hungry or just plain feels like it, Tiger Woods can stare a hole through a reporter. It is the closest any hack will ever come to competing against him and witnessing that familiar on-course, steely-eyed demeanor which has led to so many theories about his intimidation factor in a non-contact sport.
There was a classic case six months ago. This was just days after Woods shuffled off the course at The Barclays, the product of lower back spasms that had dropped him to his knees during the final round. He was inquired about whether the injury left him worrying about the long-term effects over the remainder of his career.
“No,” he offered coolly, pausing before rhetorically asking, “Do you want me to elaborate?”
Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon at the newly renovated Trump National Doral, where Woods was singing a different tune. Fresh off a similar attack of back spasms that forced him to withdraw from the Honda Classic three days earlier, he was asked the exact same question about the long-term effects on the rest of his career. This time his tone was neither definitive nor dismissive.
“Well, I think we have to take a more global look at it, yeah, absolutely, because it comes and goes,” he explained. “We've got to make sure that we do preventative things to make sure that it doesn't happen and adjust certain things. Whether it's swing, lifting, whatever it may be, you have to make certain adjustments. We've done that throughout my entire career and this is no different.”
No cold stare. No insistence that this was merely an isolated incident.
It is abundantly apparent that the lingering aftereffects of his latest back flare-up will influence his performance in the short-term. Woods only hit 60-yard shots in the days following his withdrawal and planned to just chip and putt his way around the Blue Monster less than 24 hours before his first-round tee time. For a guy whose swing didn’t exactly look grooved before, this likely doesn’t portend great things for the defending champion at this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Even if that isn’t the case, though, even if Woods appears 100 percent healthy and the treatments he’s been receiving work wonders on his current ailment and he follows the withdrawal with an unforeseen title, that’s not the story here.
The story here is about the big picture. It’s about the long-term.
It’s about the man chasing the most prestigious record in golf finally acknowledging that he could be vulnerable to impending back pain for the remainder of his career.
Unlike past knee injuries which healed after surgery and Achilles trauma which healed after rest, there is often no magic elixir to prevent or cure back spasms. At 38, Woods still ostensibly has plenty of time remaining in the competitive arena, but when the epitaph on his career is finally written, it might contend that this issue – not swing changes or putting woes or any technical faults – is what prevents him from passing Jack Nicklaus on the all-time major championship victory list, the one record we constantly debate because it’s the one he’s forever placed on the highest pedestal.
“I've had [a] knee injury, wrist injury, elbows, you name it,” he said. “Now I've had back, neck. It is what it is. It's the nature of repetitive sport. … You have repetitive injuries and most of my injuries are that. So that's the nature of why we lift, why we work out is to try to prevent a lot of these things and keep us healthy and keep us out here.
“As we get older – and I've learned it as I've aged – I don't quite heal as fast as I used to. I just don't bounce back like I used to. That's just part of aging. There's times that, watching my kids run around, I wish I could do that again. They just bounce right up, bruises, and they are gone in a day. It's just not that way anymore.”
It never will be, either. As the old saying goes, we’re not getting any younger. Being the world’s No. 1 golfer doesn’t prevent a guy from this inevitability.
In his 19th year as a professional – and yes, take a minute to process that –Woods is clearly on the back nine of what has been a brilliant career. It remains to be seen whether that means he’s on the figurative 11th hole right now or the 16th, but there’s no question that a lingering back issue can speed up that process.
Just six months ago, Woods wasn’t ready to make such an admission. He wanted to believe that the pain would cease and desist with treatment like so many of his previous injuries.
Now, though, he sounds like he’s come to grips with the fact that this could be an opponent fiercer than anyone named Mickelson or Singh or Els.
We’ve been searching for a rival to Woods for close to two decades. As it turns out, the rival might have been right in back of him – literally – the entire time.