NORTON, Mass. – Tiger Woods isn’t worried. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. When asked Thursday whether he is concerned about the long-term ramifications of a back injury that left him wincing throughout last week’s Barclays event, he offers up a cold stare and a one-word response.
“No,” he says. He then pauses for a few seconds before rhetorically asking, “Do you want me to elaborate?”
The answer sounds great – and his wince-free pro-am round helped to assuage previous fears that the damage was more than temporary. Tiger’s poker face never quite allows for true feelings, though, and so even a confident reply should leave us wondering if he’s holding pocket aces or a 7-2 off-suit.
It’s only natural to worry about an injury, and even more natural to worry about a back injury. There is something terribly disarming about this affliction. It can leave a person vulnerable, gunshy, susceptible to flinching at the slightest awkward movement.
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Anything can trigger it. Step into a car the wrong way. Reach for a cereal box on the top shelf. Hell, even a sneeze. There’s no right or wrong way to tweak your back, no absolute blueprint for when or where it’ll happen.
Tiger says he tweaked his back by sleeping on a soft hotel mattress. He said the same thing last year at the same tournament, only it was staged at a different course and he slept in a different hotel on a different mattress.
This is a man who’s never been a frequent recipient of sympathy. It's tough to feel bad for a 14-time major winner, even if he hasn't won one in a while; it's impossible to take pity on a guy whose career earnings look like a phone number, even if fame has forced him to live in a bubble.
That all changed on Sunday afternoon, though, at least for a few minutes, when Tiger took a mighty whack at his golf ball on the 13th hole and immediately fell to his knees, doubled over with back pain.
Anyone who has suffered from such torment witnessed a little bit of themselves in the man struggling to get to his feet.
Which is, of course, completely unnatural.
Tiger isn’t supposed to be like us. He isn’t supposed to be a mere mortal on the golf course.
That’s what a back injury can do, though. Knees and elbow heal – whether with surgery or just over time – but a back injury never completely goes away. Tiger sounds optimistic right now – publicly, at least – but if he ever wants to hear the doom-and-gloom scenario, he can just ask his caddie, who spent years around a guy who often suffered from back pain.
Joe LaCava toted Fred Couples’ clubs for years and owns firsthand knowledge of the havoc that a bad back can wreak upon a man’s golf game.
Or Tiger can read Couples’ comments about it for himself.
From 1998: 'I wake up in the morning, and I walk like a 60-year-old man. My back bothers me whether I shoot 64 or 104.”
Or 2004: “This back thing, you think it's old for you guys, it's old for me. … Throbbing like a toothache, it's so uncomfortable.”
Or last month: “Sidehill lies and downhill lies are very hard to get to with my back. If I drive it in the rough and don't have a great lie, I'm not going to do too much out of it. I'll probably play it safe.”
Moral of the story? Once Freddie started fighting this problem, it became an ongoing issue. Sure, he’s played some good golf during the last 15 years, but he’s also done his share of suffering. He never quite knows how it’s going to feel when he wakes up in the morning.
And now, one year after Tiger endured back problems at The Barclays and three weeks after he endured back problems at the PGA Championship and days after he endured back problems at The Barclays again, you have to wonder whether he privately thinks a bad back could ultimately serve as his kryptonite.
“It could be fixed through the treatments,” he says after finally elaborating. “If that's the case, that's fantastic, and I've just got to adhere to it and do it. And obviously it's going to be a long stretch through here and through the Presidents Cup, I'm playing a lot of golf. And that's why it's great having the physios that I have and have been working on my body for a number about of years.”
Four days after walking “like a 60-year-old man,” to use Couples’ terminology, Tiger was saying all the right things. He wasn’t in any obvious pain Thursday, but as anyone who’s dealt with back problems understands, that can change immediately and without notice.
Despite already receiving multiple treatments per day, Tiger maintains he isn’t worried about it. Just looking at the history of how a back injury can impair a golfer, though, maybe he should be.