Tiger Woods’ back injury puts Masters, race for Jack Nicklaus’ record in jeopardy

Chris Trotman

Lingering back pain forces Tiger Woods out of his title defense at Bay Hill, but more important, makes his start at the Masters a long shot and his chances of breaking Jack Nicklaus record of 18 majors an even iffier proposition.

Tiger Woods’ withdrawal from this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational with nagging back pain was surprising enough to many observers, given his long offseason rest and the tenacity he showed in coming back to Doral after quitting the Honda because of the same injury.

Beyond skipping Arnie’s tourney, where he would have been going for his record ninth win, however, question marks loom about the immediate (read 2014 Masters) and long-term (see: Nicklaus, Jack) future of the world No. 1. Taking it easy and whatever the specific "treatment" Woods has received for the injury have not been enough to quell the pain, which very much puts at least his short-term plans in doubt.

Woods pulled out of the final round of the Honda Classic three weeks ago in obvious discomfort from similar back spasms he said first flared up last August. The same problem had him wincing and clutching at his back at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where Tiger gutted his way through all 72 holes but carded a 78, the highest final round in his professional career.

Some watchers doubted that just another week of care and rest would be enough to get him back in the swing in time to defend his title at Bay Hill, but his warning on Tuesday night that his start at Augusta was in doubt was  a red flag that things were in more dire shape than he had previously acknowledged.

"I personally called Arnold today to tell him that, sadly, I won't be able to play in his tournament this year," Woods said on his website Tuesday. "Unfortunately, my back spasms and the pain haven't subsided. It's too early to know about the Masters, and I will continue to be evaluated and work closely with my doctors."

Dr. Ara Suppiah, personal physician to several tour players, including Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, and Woods’ good friend Steve Stricker, believes the back spasms mask more serious issues. Ten days of rest, treatment, and medications should have been more than sufficient to get him back on the range from mere spasms, which occur to protect injured areas, he said.

"My biggest concern is [Woods] saying that the pain hasn’t subsided and the spasm is still there," Suppiah, who has not treated Woods, said on Golf Channel’s "Morning Drive" on Wednesday. "If it was something trivial ... I would have expected 10 days would be more than enough to get this fixed.

"The fact that he’s still not hitting balls and he’s still in a lot of spasm and pain that’s not going away implies that there’s something more sinister going on and certainly ... this is a genuine problem."

With Woods struggling so badly in almost every one of his just 14 worldwide rounds in 2014, pundits wondered if Tiger would finally rebound on a Bay Hill layout venue he has vanquished eight times. Now that his title defense is definitely a no-go, speculation abounds about Woods’ ability to overtake Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships. The state of his aging and fragile body would seem to put that quest -- not to mention the 79-time tour winner's race to surpass Sam Snead's all-time record of 82 -- more in doubt than ever.

The record-holder himself, who has remained steadfast in his belief that Tiger would eventually surpass him, has been equally adamant that Woods could do so only "if he’s healthy." The latest in an ever-growing series of stints on the DL highlights Nicklaus’ caveat.

While Woods famously won the 2008 U.S. Open -- his last major W -- on a busted leg and gimpy knee, the current back woes could cause the 14-time major champion to miss his first Masters in 18 years on the pro circuit. A myriad other injuries have knocked him out of majors before -- the British Open and PGA Championship in ’08 after reconstructive knee surgery, and the 2011 U.S. and British Opens in 2011 due to a sore Achilles tendon.

Even if Woods’ health improves in time for the Masters, his chances of winning, after the worst start of his professional career (MC at Torrey Pines, T41 in Dubai, WD from the Honda, and T25 at Doral) and with such little preparation, would be extremely slim. Indeed, he entered last year’s Masters on the strength of three wins in 2013 and still went major-less for the campaign.

Yes, Woods has played with serious injuries in the past, as his stubborn refusal to sit out the 2008 U.S. Open can attest. But that was pre-sex scandal and at a much younger age, and Tiger, with his history of ailments, as many have observed, is an old 38.

He may also be a more cautious golfer than the one who took the field against his doctors’ advice in 2008, and one who still has the mindset of a major champion but the physical limitations of a wannabe.

"You have just to take a more global look at it sometimes and take a step back," Woods said at Doral. "The will to win hasn't changed; it's physically, am I able to do it. There are times when I've learned this through the injuries that I've had.

"A bad back is something that is no joke," said Woods.

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