In Sickness and In Health


He has missed tournaments in every year but one since 2005. Not just because of recurring knee problems, but the death of his father (2006) and the personal issues that altered the way so many people look at Tiger Woods. Even while battling through the worst stretch of his career, however, he has remained the most noticeable and compelling golfer on earth. Plenty of others have shot lower scores over the last 18 months. Nobody has come close to commanding the same amount of attention.

The game desperately needs Woods, preferably the one who hoists trophies on a regular basis, but that guy hasn’t surfaced since late 2009, and now it appears we’ll have to suffice without the flawed version as well. No question, the competitive element suffers without him around, but then, we’ve grown accustomed to Tiger’s absences, which takes us to the latest malfunctions of his left leg.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open in 2008 with a bum knee. (Getty Images)

Maybe he’ll only miss next week’s gathering at Quail Hollow. Maybe he’ll be out longer. One thing is certain: When a particular part of an athlete’s body continues to break down, there is no such thing as a minor injury. The Man Upstairs only gives a man so many golf swings – we’re talking about a guy who was hitting balls on national television at the age of 2.

There were a few smirks in the newsroom yesterday regarding the timing of Woods’ latest trip to the disabled list. Quail Hollow is a place where he has won before, but his performance there last year, when he missed the cut by several miles and looked inept for most of his Friday back nine, might leave some to believe he’s not interested in going back anytime soon. From there, Woods would head straight to The Players Championship, perhaps his least favorite event of the 15 or 16 that remain on his schedule.

Again, Tiger is a past champion. Again, his play at TPC Sawgrass in recent years has been below his standards. To those who believe Sir Eldrick picked a convenient time to feel a twinge in his knee, I would point out that he hasn’t played well enough anywhere since the fire hydrant to feel comfortable skipping tournaments. He needs to play. He needs to keep score against premium competition to find his way back from the morass he’s been in, and nobody knows this better than Woods himself.

Besides, if Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy can skip The Players, why would the dude with fourteen majors feel so obligated? Still, my sense is that Woods won’t return until the Memorial in about a month. Surely, he recalls the problems that arose when he pushed his knee rehab too hard in 2008, which led to his gimpy-legged heroics at the U.S. Open and 8 1/2 months on the sidelines. It’s understandable that he would be overly cautious about playing if his knee wasn’t functioning at full strength.

The question isn’t whether he’s hurt, but how severely, and whether it will affect him at the year’s final three majors. Given how he’s sprayed the ball all over the park throughout his not-quite-airborne comeback, maybe Woods should consider playing with that soft cast/boot on his bum leg. Anything to find the fairway. Anything to get back on track.

At the beginning of the year, I called 2011 the most important season of Tiger’s remarkable career, which wasn’t exactly a blind leap – his attempts to reclaim the form that made him the most dominant golfer of all-time never came to fruition. Here we are, four months later, and nothing has changed. Woods has continued to struggle, amplifying doubts about his chances of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles, and 2011 is still a big, big deal. This latest health issue may mean nothing, or it may serve as another point of reference on golf’s most infamous fall from greatness.

In good and in bad, you never really know with Tiger Woods. And that’s why we can’t stop wondering.