ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s officially time to raise the red flag.
Tiger Woods’ absence from last month’s WGC-Mexico Championship, where he played well last year in his course debut, was surprising but not earth-shattering. His decision to skip last week’s Honda Classic, held just minutes from his Florida home, didn’t register on the Richter scale.
Even his choice to pass on this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times before, didn’t seem like reason to sound the alarm. Yes, agent Mark Steinberg’s inclusion of back stiffness as a factor in the decision seemed ominous, but Woods missed Bay Hill last year and captured a fifth green jacket a few weeks later.
But his latest non-commitment, this time opting out of The Players just hours before the entry deadline because of lingering back concerns, raises an entirely new set of questions.
Since the calendar flipped to 2020, the focus has been on what Woods’ Masters prep might look like. Now there’s reason to wonder whether he’ll be ready for his Augusta National title defense at all.
“Back just not ready,” Steinberg said in a statement to ESPN.com. “Not concerning long-term, just not ready.”
Steinberg’s bullishness about Woods’ long-term prospects is understandable, but there is no hiding from the fact that something has seemingly gone awry. Woods himself has not spoken publicly about his health since the Genesis Invitational, where he finished last among the 68 players who made the cut. That weekend he seemed a shell of his former self, but he didn’t offer any indication that his health status would remain in jeopardy a month later.
“I feel stiff, but I have weeks like that,” Woods said on Feb. 15. “Especially in the cold mornings like it was the other day. Don’t quite move as well, and that’s just kind of how it’s going to go.”
When it comes to Woods, health expectations need to be calibrated appropriately. He’s now 44 years old, still essentially on borrowed time after back fusion surgery in 2017. He is not going to be able to play the ambitious schedule of a 25-year-old, nor should anyone expect him to do so.
But there’s a difference between playing it safe and not playing at all. Woods has spoken time and again about the importance of peaking for the Masters, having done so in such memorable fashion last year. But among the various strategies with which to approach Magnolia Lane, a two-month layoff doesn’t qualify as a recommended option.
And at this point, that’s now in play for the reigning Masters champ. Last year, Woods made the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in his final start before Augusta, and the year before he was a runner-up at the Valspar Championship. While he could technically still enter either upcoming event, or both, as a Masters tune-up, it’s hard to envision that an injury that has kept him out of a series of high-profile tournaments over the last month might clear up overnight.
Right now, no scenario is off the table – including the prospect that Woods may have already played his final competitive round before the Masters.
“I knew he struggled a little bit in Australia on that Saturday, when he was going to play twice. And then I talked to him in L.A., and he wasn’t feeling all that great there,” said Steve Stricker, who played two rounds alongside Woods at Riviera. “But I thought a couple weeks off, especially not playing here, would get him back into a position where he could play. So yeah, it’s a bit of a shock that he’s not going to be playing next week as well.”
Granted, Woods has been through this sort of situation before. He missed more than two months after withdrawing from Torrey Pines because of a back injury in 2015, only to return at Augusta National and finish a more-than-respectable 17th. His first start of 2010 came at the Masters, where he made his comeback from personal scandal under the brightest of spotlights and tied for fourth.
But in neither of those instances was Woods returning amid the azaleas as the defending champion. After last year’s watershed victory, this year’s Masters was expected to be a celebration of both what he had accomplished and how far he had ventured to make it all happen. But now, as has so often been the case over the last decade, a cloud of injury hangs over perhaps the greatest golfer of all time.
There’s still a chance that cloud could dissipate. There’s a chance that Woods’ injury isn’t serious, that there really is no reason for long-term concern. He could show up in Tampa in two weeks, or in Austin the week after, and show everyone that they had no real reason to worry.
But with only scant information publicly available, his decision to skip the PGA Tour’s flagship event speaks volumes about the current state of his health. And with another Friday entry deadline in the rearview mirror, the level of concern is justifiably higher than at any point since he slipped into that green jacket 11 months ago.