Tiger Woods may be absent from this week’s tilt at Bay Hill, but he and his bad back remain the talk of the PGA Tour. Indeed, with the Masters just three weeks away, conventional wisdom seemed to be that Woods’ increasingly fragile body was just one of the obstacles the world No. 1 faced in his increasingly difficult quest to smash Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championship titles.
Arnold Palmer said Wednesday that Woods’ latest health woes diminished the chances that the 14-time major winner would overtake Nicklaus. The King, presiding over his Arnold Palmer Invitational, joined one of Tiger’s peers in opining that the competition on any given Sunday would play a large role in whether Woods succeeds in his race against Jack -- and time.
"I think it lessens the possibility of that [surpassing Nicklaus] happening," Palmer told reporters in his annual state-of-the-game gathering with reporters about the state of Woods’ injury. "It's going to be tough. It's going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of the game that is necessary to win majors."
Woods informed Palmer earlier in the week that nagging back pain forced him to withdraw from his Bay Hill title defense. With a start at the Masters in three weeks also in question, it seemed unlikely that Tiger, whose last major victory was the 2008 U.S. Open, would end his major-less skid in April.
Injuries are nothing new for Woods, whose three WDs in the past four years before this week’s involved various body parts, including his neck, knee, and Achilles tendon. His name, however, is popping up on the DL with more frequency of late, what with his final-round walk-off at the Honda Classic and his withdrawal prior to Thursday’s Bay Hill tilt after struggling to make it through 72 holes at Doral two weeks ago.
"He didn't tell me how bad his back is. I don’t think he knows how bad his back is," said Palmer, who disclosed he would undergo back surgery next month to ease his own discomfort. "I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play ... I think he wanted to play golf this week and he just feels ... he needs ... whether it's this week, next week or the following week, to get ready for Augusta. Certainly if I were in that position I'd be doing much the same. I appreciate the fact that he did call and he made every effort to play."
Given the robust fields these days, even a completely healthy Tiger would face a monumental challenge to win one more, let alone the five majors he needs to beat Nicklaus.
"These young guys [on tour] are tough. And they’re strong. And if they continue to play as well as they've been playing it's going to be tough for anybody, including anybody else, whether it be Nicklaus or Tiger or whomever it would be to continue to win major championships," said Palmer, who gave a nod to those who believe Woods' intimidating mystique is no more.
"The fear of a player being so good that they back off, I don’t think that’s the case anymore," he said. "I think that the players that are going to win and win major championships have to be physically fit and mentally fit and they’re going to continue to be tough to beat."
Graeme McDowell, who has stared straight into the eye of the Tiger and emerged triumphant, concurred with Palmer’s assessment of the depth of talent on tour.
"Winning major championships is getting harder and harder for everyone, including the best player maybe that’s ever lived, in Tiger," McDowell said in a Wednesday press conference."He’s got more than just his body to be fighting. There’s a lot of great players in the world now. Everyone is getting better."
Indeed, McDowell, who beat the tourney host in a playoff at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, believes Woods' most daunting tests involve his opponents and not his own unsound infrastructure.
"Maybe 70/30 -- 70 being field, 30 being body," said the winner of the 2010 U.S. Open, who agreed it would be demanding for Woods to attain 19 major titles but was unwilling to proclaim the race over.
"You’d never put anything past him," said McDowell. "He could prove us all wrong and show up at Augusta, win by 10 and you guys will be back to the keyboards and waxing lyrical, and away we go again. Who knows?"
Good question, and one for which even the man of the hour has no immediate answer.