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We owe Woods benefit of doubt when it comes to his back

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Forget you’ve already seen the headline above. Avert your eyes from the photo. Distance yourself from everything you think you already know regarding what you’re about to read.

Now study the following sentence and form a genuine, unbiased opinion with no preconceived notions:

The world’s best golfer has been sidelined once again due to a recurring back injury.

The prevailing feeling, of course, should be some mixture of sympathy and empathy. I mean, let’s face it: Whomever the guy is, he didn’t do it on purpose. He didn’t injure himself so that he wouldn’t have to play competitive golf anytime soon. He didn’t fake it just so he wouldn’t have to go through the motions of potentially winning at Bay Hill or just so he’d have a little bit of a personal challenge going into the Masters.

And yet, I wonder how few of you read those words and immediately thought, “Aww, that poor guy. Hope he gets better soon!”

That’s because no matter how much you try to distance yourself from those preconceived notions, you know we’re talking about Tiger Woods.

And for whatever reason, he doesn’t inspire compassion from the masses.

It probably has something to do with the fact that we expect our heroes to be invincible. Or that it’s tough to feel sorry for a guy with so many zeroes in his bank account. Or that he once won a U.S. Open on a broken leg, so we figure he should be able to suck it up, pop a few Advil and keep on truckin’ through this little ailment.

Woods is no stranger to double standards. There’s the positive kind: Tee shots that might go 40 yards offline for another player have been known to conk one of his thousands of spectators in the head and land near the fairway. And there’s the negative kind: If anyone else won five PGA Tour events last season, they’d be erecting statues in his honor, but Tiger only gets criticized more because none of ‘em were majors.

I don’t get this one, though. If any other golfer – Phil, Rory, Adam, anyone – was afflicted with a lingering back injury, the consensus would be that we’d take it at face value and wish him the best. Hell, his buddy Freddie Couples has cultivated an entire pardoned persona on the fact that back issues prevented him from living up to his full potential.

But Tiger? The public refuses to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The prevailing opinion is that he’s somehow brought this upon himself. When he’s injured enough that it affects his performance, he’s accused of dogging it. When he grinds through a round and still plays admirably, he’s accused of having faked it in the first place.

When he’s forced to withdraw prior to a tournament, as is the case for this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, it’s like he’s done something wrong.

Maybe he’s lifting too much weight and his body can’t support it.

Maybe his revamped swing with Sean Foley is putting too much stress on his body.

Maybe he’s working too hard during his off weeks. Or maybe he’s not working hard enough.

A few of those statements might include shreds of the truth, but here are two which remain inarguable: Woods is the greatest player of his generation and he is currently concerned about the state of his back.

Love him or hate him – and there are very few who toe the line in between – we can all agree that the game is more exciting, more enthralling, more electrifying when Tiger is hovering around the leaderboard on Sunday afternoons. If he is worried about the long-term ramifications of this injury, which he admitted last week at Doral, then the rest of us should be worried, too.

“Unfortunately, my back spasms and the pain haven't subsided,” Woods posted on his website. “It's too early to know about the Masters, and I will continue to be evaluated and work closely with my doctors.”

Tiger has never disguised how much the four majors mean to him – and, if you really press him, he’ll admit that the Masters ranks at the top of that list. For his current injury to be so debilitating that it’s jeopardizing his appearance in Augusta, you know it’s gotta be bad.

Still, he’s often treated like the boy who cries wolf. Or, maybe even worse, the one who stubs his toe, then takes his ball and runs home.

It’s not Tiger’s fault that his back seized up during the final round of The Barclays last year, or that it prevented him from finishing at the Honda Classic a few weeks ago, or that it turned a promising Saturday at Doral into a pitiful Sunday, or that he won’t chase a ninth career title this week on The King’s course.

The guy must feel like he’s 38 going on 83. He must feel like the barrier between his 14 majors and Jack Nicklaus’ 18 has grown to roughly the size of Mount Everest.

If he’s scouring the Internet and watching the talk shows, though, Woods must also feel like he can’t do anything right.

Castigate him all you’d like for not smiling enough or not hitting his driver in the fairway more often or not winning more frequently – even though his winning percentage puts to shame everyone else who’s ever played.

At least those are beefs of varying legitimacy. Condemning him for a back injury, though, isn’t just irresponsible. It’s ugly.

For as much as you want Tiger to be healthy and play to the best of his abilities and win golf tournaments, he wants it even more. It’s about time we gave him the benefit of the doubt.