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Hawk's Nest: Wear and tear of age affecting Tiger

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You certainly can’t evaluate his health by examining the state of his golf game. Tiger Woods used to win three or four tournaments a year from the right trees. Before the back spasms, the knee issues and the hydrant, Woods’ inability to drive the ball straight only made his dominance more astounding.

Time waits for no one, however, and when Woods returned to action earlier than expected at the end of June – Graham DeLaet needed almost twice as long to recover from the same surgery – the reaction was generally gung-ho. Rust removal? Makes sense. The next two majors at venues he once conquered? Gotta get ready for those.

You’re chasing history and you’re losing ground, so you proclaim yourself fit as a fiddle and gas up the jet. “Obviously, I’m going to get stronger and faster as time goes on, but the risk is minimal, just like every round we play,” Woods said at Congressional in his first start back.

He would repeat the stronger-and-faster thing several times, no doubt believing it, as people who will themselves to so much accomplishment tend to believe everything they say. There’s a reason most premier athletes retire in their mid- to late-30s, however. Their physical skills erode. Not only do their bodies betray them, they begin breaking down on a regular basis.

Woods broke down again Sunday at Firestone. Another funky shot from trouble after missing right, another mid-round departure, another poor performance punctuated by injury. There is a lot not to like about the situation, although one shouldn’t get the sense this latest setback occurred because Tiger came back too soon.

The man played nine full rounds of competitive golf before his back acted up. He put himself in more treacherous situations than a cat burglar over those 5 ½ weeks and emerged without a hitch. This isn’t about a premature return. It’s about the wear and tear of age and a guy who insists on going after the ball like someone half as old.

Speaking of which, the future of golf is tugging on our shirt like a restless child – and Tiger’s status will swipe much of the attention worthy of better causes: Rory McIlroy’s ride to greatness, Rickie Fowler’s vast improvement, Sergio Garcia’s re-emergence.

America’s Red Shirt infatuation wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if he was still performing at a high level, but that hasn’t been the case for a while. You blame the media? I can’t swing a 7-iron without hitting a pile of data that tells us Woods is the only golfer many, many people care about. It’s sad in a way, but I was saying five years ago that the Tiger Hangover would have a far-reaching effect on the game’s sensibilities.

Seriously, I hate it when I’m right about stuff like that.

DUSTIN JOHNSON’S LEAVE of absence from pro golf hit some folks like a locomotive. I was about halfway into a live chat last Thursday when the news broke, leading to a rash of insensitive reaction and unwitting ignorance to the situation overall.

Was I surprised by Johnson’s announcement? Not even a little bit. Whispers about his off-course behavior have been circulating on the PGA Tour for years – the tipping point occurred when he missed almost three months of the 2012 season with what was described as a back injury.

There was some chuckling that spring among those who knew better, and when I broached the subject of Johnson’s physical status with a member of his camp at Quail Hollow, I was shooed away like a rabid dog. Given the wonderful disposition of the person I approached, let’s just say it was a highly unusual response to a fairly standard inquiry.

So when reported last Friday that Johnson was suspended by the PGA Tour after a positive test for cocaine, his third failed test since 2009, the whispers became a roar. The Tour would release a statement claiming Johnson is not serving a suspension, which is basically a moot point – a cross between damage control and semantics:

“This is to clarify that Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA Tour.”

In other words, Johnson chose not to file an appeal and took the initiative of enrolling in some type of substance-abuse program. That basically takes precedent over any form of disciplinary action, at least for the time being, by Camp Ponte Vedra.

Why mention all this? Because the Tour’s policy of not releasing information regarding fines and suspensions is a joke. No other professional sports league dabbles in such obtuse paranoia. Out of respect for its fan base and the acknowledgement that it does business in the United States of America, every organization but the PGA Tour is forthright in its obligation to release pertinent information.

Our circuit carries on with its head in the sand. Why? Because the Tour cherishes its “sanitized reputation” perhaps more than any of its other qualities. The squeaky-clean factor goes a long way toward selling title sponsorships and driving corporate interest in general.

Someone such as John Daly isn’t necessarily tolerated, but commissioner Tim Finchem can look a CEO in the eye and tell him that such cases are very, very rare. Why feed the media something that can only smear the image, scare away primary investors and potentially jeopardize the revenue stream?

Nobody ever said pro golf lives in the real world. And if they did, they might want to consider a breakfast ball.

MY NEXT-DOOR neighbor is an outstanding human being. Nicest guy in town, a little tight with a buck, but he’ll drop what he’s doing on a moment’s notice if someone needs help. Oh, and he can’t stand Sergio Garcia.

Many of you get it, and a fair number of you surely agree with Tom. Garcia has done some stupid stuff over the years, pretty much running the table on everything from poor sportsmanship (spitting into a hole at Doral) and whining about bad breaks (2007 British Open) to his embarrassing comments about the color of Woods’ skin.

He’s on the short list of the greatest antagonists in Ryder Cup history, but of all the roles Garcia has played over the years, he’s probably best known as Woods’ pigeon – or Tweety Bird, as the case may be. Sergio would have been a superstar if Red Shirt hadn’t thumped him so often in the good old days.

Instead, he’s become the handsome villain, and pro golf has always been more interesting when someone wears the black hat. Jack Nicklaus as the young predator to Arnie in the early 1960s. Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, who piloted the evil empire’s migration from Europe in the 1980s …

What makes Garcia such an ideal bad guy is the Wile E. Coyote factor. The anvil always seems to land on his head come Sunday afternoon. We saw it happen again at Firestone. The putts stopped falling, and though Garcia didn’t miss any short ones, he did little enough to let McIlroy wipe out the three-stroke deficit almost immediately.

For all the anti-Sergios, it was another reason to rejoice, but I have a funny feeling about this week, and it’s telling me Garcia will finally win his first major title. We’re talking about a guy who has always played his best golf in binges, and he’s certainly playing well this summer. The greens at Valhalla are not severe, although Sergio has proven he can miss them just about anywhere. Still, it should be a ball-striker’s PGA.

Valhalla isn’t a long course by today’s standards. All three tournaments I covered there were notable for the great atmosphere. “It may not be a great golf course, but it’s a great place to play golf,” said Paul Azinger, who captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team to victory at Valhalla in 2008.

It should be an interesting week. With or without Woods.