The sight of Tiger Woods limping to a golf cart, in serious pain on Sunday, was painful to watch.
At that moment – and at this moment – liking or disliking Woods is irrelevant. He is one of the great athletes of our lifetime and watching him fight a losing battle – at least right now – with his body is no fun for anyone. For the record: if he attempts to play the PGA Championship this week, regardless of what doctors tell him, he’s crazy. He needs to rest his back for a long time and build it back up slowly and hope that he can have a born-again career beginning next year at age 39.
Woods needs to forget about Jack Nicklaus. He needs to forget about winning a 15th major and absolutely forget about meeting obligations to sponsors; cancel all contracts, if need be.
He needs to figure out a way to be healthy again for an extended period of time. Sunday’s walk-off at Firestone was Woods’ fifth since May 2010. Golf isn’t football. Players rarely suffer an injury so serious that they can’t finish a round.
Healthy doesn’t mean playing through pain or feeling good enough to give it a try. Healthy means pain free and feeling as if you’re able to do anything you want to do with a golf club in your hands. Because back problems tend to be chronic for anyone, but especially for golfers, Woods may not be able to get there. But he needs to at least make a serious attempt.
He needs to tell his agent, Mark Steinberg, to not call him to talk business. He needs to tell his sponsors to go away for a while, and he needs to cancel those overseas commitments for appearance fees. He doesn’t need the money. He needs to be healthy.
When Woods showed to play in Washington, D.C., in late June at the tournament that benefits his foundation, some health experts were surprised. On March 31, Woods had undergone a microdiscetomy on his back, a procedure designed to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve. Many doctors said then that an elite athlete usually returns to compete in “three-to-four months.” But they all added it might be months afterward before the patient would be anywhere close to 100 percent.
Woods is an elite athlete, but he is a 38-year-old elite athlete who has had four knee surgeries, has put huge pressure on his back with his abnormally violent golf swing, and has built up his upper body to a point where it is almost difficult for him to carry all the muscle he has developed.
One option was to take the rest of the year off. But Woods wanted to appease a new sponsor for his D.C. tournament. Regardless of what occurred in the back rooms here’s what did happen in public: Friday before the event at Congressional, Woods dramatically announced he would play the following week. Three days later, he made it clear that he would not have played that week if not for his involvement in the event.
He then missed the cut by four shots (only the 10th missed cut of his 19-year professional career) and declared that he was pain free and optimistic about his recovery. At the British Open three weeks later, he talked about being more “explosive,” with his swing. He then played one good round and three bad ones. The pattern was continuing at Firestone before the swing-now-seen-a-million-times took place Sunday on the second hole.
He’d hit a poor tee shot on the second hole, giving himself an awkward lie in thick grass on the front side of a fairway bunker. In hindsight given that he wasn’t going anywhere in the golf tournament, he probably should have declared the ball unplayable rather than put his back at risk by taking a swing which he couldn’t complete without falling backward. When he did go backward, he landed awkwardly in the bunker and that was pretty much that.
Again, one has to wonder about decision-making here: Once he felt the pain run through his lower back, why did he try to play through it? To what end? You’re still recovering from major back surgery and you feel pain like that, why keep playing? Maybe try another swing or two to see if the spasm eases up, but when it doesn’t, get out of there. Playing six more holes was foolish. There was nothing to gain. It wasn’t as if walking off was anything new for him: get off the course and get treatment. Someone should have stopped him.
Maybe this will turn out to have just been a bad spasm but even if that’s all it is, it’s a sign that the back is not completely healthy. What’s more, it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to go out and play golf without putting himself at risk.
When Woods came back in June he claimed that he had learned his lesson from this experience; that he wasn’t going to fight pain anymore to come back too quickly; that he was more mature now and had learned to let his body heal.
Those words sound empty right now. Woods needs someone to sit him down, look him in the eye and tell him this may be his last chance to get healthy – truly healthy. If he does that, he can still be a great player in his 40s. Others have done that in golf. But if he keeps pushing to return too soon, as he has done repeatedly in the past, his days of greatness might be over.
And that would be a sad ending.