The week-to-week, day-to-day unpredictability of Tiger Woods' recent career checks in at another early-season milepost this week at Doral.
Once the most sure-thing dominant force in sports, Woods' recent pattern of injury problems and inconsistent play under his Sean Foley-redesigned swing persist in 2014, a year in which he has yet to even play all four rounds of a PGA Tour event. We have no idea what to expect right now from Woods -- he could bail with a bad back five holes into the first round, he could fire four middling rounds and finish as just another guy at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, or he could overwhelm the most loaded field of the year and win for the fifth time in his career at Doral. We're really at that stage of unpredictability this season with the No. 1 player in the world.
It was at this time last year that Tiger was on the edge of retaking that No. 1 ranking, destroying the field at Torrey Pines and cruising to wins at both Doral and Bay Hill. All three courses were old standbys in the Tiger blueprint and map to a successful season. Sitting on the lead on Sunday morning at Bay Hill, Brandel Chamblee, not exactly known as a Tiger booster as he displayed by the end of the season, stated, "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."
That's where we were a year ago -- the Sunday inevitability, particularly at the places Tiger was most comfortable, had returned. Tiger was "back." This year, he's not necessarily in a slump, we just have no idea how to characterize his season or what to expect. We know it's not as good a start as 2013, and that's about it. Here's the tally for Tiger in three worldwide events this year:
- Farmers Insurance Open (Torrey Pines) -- 72-71-79 (Missed 54-hole cut)
- Omega Dubai Desert Classic -- 68-73-70-71 (tied for 41st)
- Honda Classic (PGA National) -- 71-69-65-WD after a 40 on Sunday front 9
That's all we have to go on -- one middling Euro Tour performance where he shot in the 60s only once, and two American tour appearances that he did not finish on Sunday.
It's not the 2013 start, but does it matter? I've often written over the last two years that Tiger is playing under an impossible standard right now. A win at Doral or Bay Hill adds to his total in the pursuit of Sam Snead's once unapproachable career wins record (82), but it does nothing for the one goal and singular remaining purpose of his career: breaking Jack Nicklaus' majors record (18). Woods has little to gain anymore from these non-major events he's won so many times. A win at Torrey, or Doral, or Bay Hill, or Firestone, and the Monday morning response is "Yeah, but he always wins there -- can he do it on the weekend at a major?" An implosion, or mediocre play, or an injury at one of those events, and we have a five-alarm fire that needs to be put out quickly, or else the most dominant player in the history of the game will never win another major.
So 2014 is some mixture of a mess and n/a, but Tiger could be taking an entirely different approach following last year's five-win, majorless season. Wins at Torrey, Doral, and Bay Hill didn't do much for him at Augusta last year, and this year's results should have the same effect. The first few months appear to be more of trial phase than last year's start.
The year-to-year, day-to-day Tiger Woods -- The Machine -- probably left us for good in 2008, when his first major injury ended his season in June after a U.S. Open win. The spate of injuries, more than any sort of swing experiment or changes, are the biggest reason for Woods vacillating from "most predictable, most animated" to the unpredictability of 2014. The back spasms that flared up on Sunday appeared last August at the Barclays, when Woods said he slept on a soft hotel mattress and then spent the week wincing, including the Sunday dramatics coming into the clubhouse:
The back issue crept up again in October at the Presidents Cup, where Woods winced some more during Sunday singles. And then on Sunday at the Honda, following two months of barely playing and an offseason spent bulking up, Woods had to quit on the 13th hole with the same back spasm problem. The back threatens his ability to succeed this year and into the future more than the knee problems, which he said on Wednesday he could always play through even though it "hurt like hell." Here's Tiger on how this recurring problem is different, and probably more concerning:
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.
When I had my injuries over the years, it was always after impact. So it's fine; the ball's gone. It's going to hurt like hell, but the ball's gone. So I can do my job and deliver the club and deliver the final moment to the ball and hit the shot I want to hit. It's just going to hurt like hell afterwards. I played that way for years. But with the back, it's a totally different deal. There are certain moments, certain movements you just can't do. That's one of the things I've started to learn about this type of injury; it's very different.
Tiger added that it was getting "absurd" on Sunday when he couldn't twist and the ball had the potential to go 100 yards in either direction (which we saw on just the third hole of the day).
Now, after four days of treatment, Woods starts the week on a redesigned Doral he's never played before, hitting nothing but chips and putts the last two days. At first, this year's inconsistent form in limited appearances seemed almost by design as Woods tested some things out. This week is unpredictable for an entirely different but familiar reason for the No. 1 player in the world: his health. Will his back hold up through four rounds after not taking a full swing all week? Maintaining the narrative of 2014 so far, no one has any idea what to expect from the game's once inevitable force.