Have you ever sat through a job interview where the questioner maintains, “There is no right or wrong answer,” then grills you on your viewpoint, furiously taking notes the entire time? That’s how I feel about a persisting issue in golf that reared its ugly head once again this weekend.
As you know by now, Tiger Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic with five holes remaining in his final round because of lower back spasms. It was the sixth withdrawal of his 19-year professional career and fourth in the last five years.
On three of those occasions, he bowed out during the final round. These were final rounds which saw him out of contention and in pain, on the way to an uninspired T-37 finish or whatever, something invariably un-Tiger-like.
That’s hardly a pattern, but it can be considered a recurring theme.
His message, each time, was transparent: If I can’t win, then I’m not going to risk further injury by continuing to languish out here on the course.
Sounds like thoughtful, reasonable rationale. After all, there are really two things about the man that we know to be true: He only cares about winning and wants to peak four times each year for the major championships. Everything else is gravy. The justification that if he can’t win then he’s better off protecting himself for the majors is hardly misguided.
Then again, withdrawing early from a competition – in any sport, at any level – is expressly frowned upon. For a 14-time major champion who owes it to the tournament and his fans and his position as a role model, he should feel the responsibility to soldier on in the face of adversity, to grit it out until the bitter end.
And so this is the question that remains: Is it fair to withdraw when you’re hurting and have no chance of winning?
There’s no right or wrong answer – but don’t get it wrong anyway, just in case.
Immediately after Woods’ latest withdrawal, I searched what I’d written about Rory McIlroy exactly one year earlier after he’d left the Honda due to what he’d termed an impacted wisdom tooth.
“This is beyond poor form. This is quitting,” I wrote at the time. “This is the absolute opposite of what we expect and demand from our superstars. … The golf course may not be a rugged gridiron or a blood-spattered boxing ring, but we still want our best players to be tough. We want them to suck it up during the lean times. Take their lumps, get through it and move on.”
Shouldn’t the same logic be applied to Woods? Yes, I think, but with a bullet: You can’t exacerbate a toothache by continuing to play golf. A back injury, though, can indeed worsen.
Make no mistake, if Woods had been closer to the lead on Sunday afternoon we would have witnessed five more holes of stretching and wincing as he tried to capture a title. Sure, it was a half-dozen years ago, but the 2008 U.S. Open is still fresh in our minds, the image of an oft-doubled-over Tiger forging ahead on a torn ACL and multiple leg fractures to win a Monday playoff. It was the kind of performance they’ll make a movie about someday. It might not have been Ben Hogan returning from a near-fatal collision with a Greyhound bus, but it was pretty special in its own right.
More recently, we can look back to last year’s Barclays tournament. In contention, Woods fell to his knees after hitting an ugly pull-hook on the 13th hole, the result of a back spasm. He not only persevered, he carded two birdies down the stretch, then missed a putt on the final green that would have forced a playoff before shuffling off the course, barely able to lift his feet off the ground.
What that tells us is that he’s capable of competing through pain – and competing at a high level – but doesn’t feel the need when he’s not in contention.
We can also learn from Sunday’s withdrawal. The takeaway, once again, is that Tiger doesn’t care what the rest of us think. He doesn’t care if he gets castigated for packing it in, doesn’t care if he gets censured for not persevering as he’s done when in contention.
What he cares about – not necessarily in this order – is winning and remaining healthy for the major championships. The first wasn’t going to happen this time, so he left the course before the second was any more in doubt.
Was it the right move? Well, it depends if we’re speaking physically, technically, mentally, emotionally, morally or ethically. No matter what, though, there’s really no right or wrong answer.