For the sixth time in the past six years, Tiger Woods is injured and will miss a tournament because of it. The No. 1 player in the world is bailing on his own party, the AT&T National at Congressional, to rest and recover from the elbow strain that bubbled to the surface last week at the U.S. Open, where he finished 13-over par and set a variety of new personal worsts. This was supposed to be the season of Tiger in full once again, but at the midpoint, he's 0-for-2 at the majors and dealing with another physical ailment that could put the rest of the year in doubt.
The momentum of his season is again stunted by a 37-year-old body that's become the biggest inhibitor of the Jack Nicklaus majors chase. In good health, he achieved total comfort in his Sean Foley redesigned swing and spent much of his practice time working on his short game, which carried him to four early 2013 wins. This was the season he was supposed to stop being stuck on 14, the overwhelming favorite at the Masters and at Merion, which he prepped for by winning The Players in a style that the U.S. Open setup would demand.
The injury occurred during "one of the rounds" at the Players, a tournament where Tiger had withdrawn due to injury in two of the previous three years. It's a venue where he's never been quite comfortable, but this year's Tiger, the one who's "back," rolled to his fourth victory of the season and emasculated Sergio Garcia along the way.
Tiger being Tiger, the injury went undisclosed until it became observable early in his first round at Merion. With the injury in view, it was impossible to accurately assess his form at the U.S. Open and in an underwhelming week at the intervening Memorial. Whether it was the injury or not, Tiger lost it all at both events.
Since his last major championship win in 2008, all the perfect moments for a crescendo with Woods have resulted in bitter disappointment. But this year was different, the "process" was working and Woods was once again No. 1. A bad break at Augusta and now an injury have derailed the return to golf's natural order, and may result in yet another lost summer for Woods. It's now been a series of lost summers for Woods, whose body has not held up through the prime of his career in his 30s. A rundown of the batch of ailments that he's dealt with from age 32 to this month (with an assist from Shane Bacon and GolfChannel.com):
April 2008: Shortly after the Masters, Woods has arthroscopic knee surgery on damaged cartilage in his left knee.
June 2008: Tiger wins the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg. After beating Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole Monday playoff, his 2008 season is over with the most serious injury he's had in his career -- a torn ACL and cartilage as well as a stress fracture in the left leg.
May 2010: Out of contention at The Players, Woods walks off the course and into the training trailer with what is originally believed to be a bulging disc (although Golf Channel's Win McMurry states otherwise). The injury is later revealed as a joint problem in his neck, and Tiger keeps his regular schedule and does not miss his next start.
April 2011: Tiger injures his knee again taking a full cut off the pine straw on No. 17 at the Masters. He withdraws from the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow to rest the left knee as well as a sore Achilles, a new injury that's revealed in the announcement to WD.
May 2011: After resting the knee and Achilles, Tiger makes a go at The Players but withdraws for the second straight year at Sawgrass. This time, he bows out on his first nine holes as opposed to the Sunday WD in 2010. He cites continued problems with both the knee and Achilles. It's later announced that Tiger has a sprained MCL and a strained Achilles, which force him to miss both the U.S. Open and the British Open.
March 2012: Another Sunday WD for Tiger, but this time at one of his favorite annual stops -- Doral. Tiger cites issues with the Achilles again, leaving the course with seven holes to play in the tournament and having his car tracked by Miami news helicopters.
Until this month, that withdrawal at Doral would be the last real sign of injury trouble for Tiger, who went on to end his winless streak just two weeks later at Bay Hill. It was the start of a 13-month, seven-win stretch that propelled him back to No. 1 and the game's most dominant, intimidating player. Just two months ago, with Woods on the verge of his third win of the season at Bay Hill, Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, a notorious Tiger critic, exclaimed: "You're talking about golf's most predictable, golf's most animated man. And he's on the verge of doing to this generation's psyche what he did to the previous generation's psyche."
Now we're left with another flameout at the U.S. Open and an injury that will keep him on the shelf until the British Open. The elbow strain may be something or it may be nothing, but we never know anymore with Woods, who continues to come up empty on the weekends at majors.
It appeared Tiger was once again a sure thing in 2013, but much like his previous five seasons, we're back to wondering if his body will hold up, and even if it does, are his mind and game in form and free of that concern? Weighed down and consumed by the chase of Nicklaus, a goal he put above his bed as a child, is Tiger gripping the club a little tighter coming down the stretch at majors? His putting and short game, two areas that brought him back to No. 1, have not been the same at the majors. Is that because of injury, or the burden of the one outstanding career goal and the knowledge that the opportunities are dwindling?
For a sustained stretch, Tiger played golf better than anyone ever has in the history of the game. It's a ridiculous standard that we continue to measure him by, but one that's no longer reachable. The seven wins over the past 13 months is dominance, but it's never crescendoed in that majors moment. A couple years ago, Brian Phillips of Grantland wrote one of the best sports essays I've ever read, describing the "still life" of Roger Federer. It's that in-between stage where a once greatest athlete has still got it but is no longer consistently matching the standard he previously set. I'll let Phillips explain (I'd like to excerpt the whole thing as the entire essay is worth reading):
"The saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he's tagged with the word "still." One day you're fast. One day you're slow. There's an in-between day when you're 'still fast,' and that's the day when everything hollows out.
What this means, though, is that Federer has become something rarer and stranger, something arguably even more interesting. He's still good enough to win any tournament he enters, but he's always surrounded by that vague sadness, the result of his no longer being free from time."
This year, Tiger was back to being great, the best player in the world capable of and favored to win every tournament he entered. But his first two opportunities passed with a ricochet off the pin at No. 15 and an elbow injury, leaving just Muirfield and Oak Hill to prevent a fifth straight lost summer.
It once seemed that Tiger would blow past Jack's record before he was 35. There's now entertainment value in the added drama of what was once inevitable. Tiger will win another major, but five more? The mixture of injury problems and personal scandal have already combined to wash away five prime years. With those issues subsiding, this year he was finally back to focusing only on his golf game and a return to most-favored status. Now, we're again left wondering if another injury will saddle him at a British Open venue where he's already posted high numbers, or if it's just a blip that forces an unplanned week off. A reminder that we never know anymore with Woods, who's no longer free from time.
With an eye always on the majors, missing his own tournament is supposed to be another precautionary measure as he preps for Muirfield, a course where he shot 81 and also flamed out when The Open Championship last stopped at that venue. After that, it's Oak Hill, another classic (but longer) layout like Merion and where the PGA's Kerry Haigh will surely have the rough nice and gnarly, of little comfort to Tiger's elbow.
There will be many more years of majors with Tiger in attendance, and we're always quick to point to Jack winning at the age of 46 as some sort of cushion or ceiling for Woods. But that was a perfect, almost "mystical" confluence of circumstances for Jack, who by his own admission "wasn't really a golfer" anymore. Woods could be winning majors into his 50s, but based on everything we've seen over the past five seasons, golf's "most predictable" is now an unpredictable, aging piece of machinery in annual need of repair. Will 72 holes at Muirfield be possible, and in what form? See you in a month, maybe.