Tiger Woods will not play in the 2014 Masters at Augusta National next week after having surgery on his ailing back. It's the first time in his professional career, which he opened with that historic win in 1997, that Tiger will not be at Augusta. Even with the recent spate of injuries and career interruptions, Tiger has played the Masters every year since 1995, when he was a 19-year-old amateur and just the fourth African American competing in the tournament.
Woods announced on his website that he underwent successful surgery to relieve a pinched nerve in his back. Prior to the announcement, it was unknown what specific injury ailed Woods' back. Woods will begin rehab following the surgery and says he hopes to play again "sometime this summer."
Tiger recently stated that he had his first back issue in college, but this iteration really started last August at the Barclays. It was then that Woods said he simply slept on a soft hotel mattress, but spent the first stop of the FedExCup playoffs wincing around the course and grabbing his back. The injury manifested most dramatically on Sunday, with Tiger still in the hunt but dropping to the ground in pain at one point after impact:
Despite that apparent pain, Woods still played on that Sunday and shot a 69 to finish in a tie for second. He'd also continue to play the final three stops of the PGA Tour's postseason and we wouldn't see or hear much more about the injury.
Then at October's Presidents Cup, Woods was seen trying to get loose during Sunday singles, hunching over his golf bag and stretching out his back. It was assumed that the muscle issue from August flared up again, and Tiger finished off the international team competition without any major incident.
Woods spent most of golf's silly season and offseason resting, collecting a few appearance fees abroad but mostly taking it easy. He showed up at Torrey Pines noticeably bulked up after reportedly working to get into even better shape during that time away. The added muscle became a focus of analysts' swing dissections throughout the week, with both his former coach Hank Haney and Brandel Chamblee landing their critiques of his ability to make a swing with added muscle. Tiger bowed out early at Torrey, failing to make the 54-hole cut and defend his title on another one of his favorite tracks, where he's an eight-time winner. Most thought he was just messing around with some new tweaks to the Sean Foley redesigned swing, but that didn't make the seven-hole stretch he played in 9-over any less startling an implosion.
Despite that ugly result, there was no sign of back trouble. But in his second PGA Tour start, the Honda Classic, the back issue from last fall reappeared when Woods walked off in the middle of his final round. That round came just a day after his best 18-hole stretch of the year, a 65 at PGA National that got him back in the Honda. Early in his Sunday round, however, it was pretty evident that something was wrong as he sprayed balls all over the course and repeatedly stretched out the back from the first tee until withdrawing on the 13th. That reset everything, as we largely thought Woods' showing at Torrey Pines and his mediocre play at the Honda (including a front-nine 40 on Sunday) were just the No. 1 player in the world working through things to prep for Augusta. Now he was having back trouble again, and that was after extremely limited reps through the first two months of the year.
Just four days after that Sunday WD in Palm Beach, however, Woods would play Doral as scheduled. He spent those four days doing nothing but chipping and putting, and showed up to a completely redesigned course unprepared. It showed through the first couple rounds, but much like the Honda, he came from nowhere on Saturday for a third-round 66 that, for most people, made him the favorite to win again at Doral. He was just a couple shots back of some relatively unknown and untested leaders, so if the back held up as it did the first three days, Woods seemed like the best bet. Instead, Tiger's chances were gone by the third hole, rinsed away with a ball in the water. On the sixth hole, we again saw visible signs of back pain when he had an awkward stance in a sand trap:
Woods would finish the round out with his worst career score at Doral, a 78 where he could barely bend his back to make a putting stroke. At one point, the caddie for Hunter Mahan, who he was playing with in the final round, bent over to retrieve Tiger's ball from the hole so as to give him a moment of relief. The day ended with Tiger wincing all the way up the 18th fairway to finish only the eighth round of his entire pro career without a birdie.
The miserable ending at Doral was the last we'd see of Tiger in the month of March. He pulled out of Bay Hill, and while doing so, specifically said it was too early to make a decision about the Masters. At that point, the Masters was almost 25 days away and to hear Woods, who is notoriously guarded about his health and noncommittal about his schedule, specifically cite the season's first major during an announcement unrelated to it was a bit startling. Last Monday at a press conference to announce a new sponsor for his tournament at Congressional, Tiger maintained the stance that it was "too soon" to clarify his status for the biggest event of the year.
So all we had over the last three weeks was "too early to know" and "too soon" and that made it seem like the Masters would be a game-time decision. But surely Tiger would come to Augusta and give it a go during the practice rounds and try to tee it up Thursday, even if he had completed four rounds in just one PGA Tour event all season.
The announcement, coming a week early, may bring clarity but only reinforces the total unpredictability of the game's once most predictable force. Tiger played every major championship from his first full season as a professional in 1997 until winning the U.S. Open on one leg in June of 2008. This will now be the fifth major that Tiger has missed since that leg injury at Torrey Pines. He missed the last two of that 2008 summer while recovering from the torn ACL and broken leg, and then missed the 2011 U.S. Open and British Open recovering from a sprained MCL and Achilles injury he first suffered violently punching out from the pine straw at the Masters.
Woods has not won a major in nearly six years -- a thrilling playoff win at Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open, in which he played through a knee injury that required surgery. Even with that injury in 2008, the chasedown of Jack Nicklaus' majors record seemed inevitable. Woods was only 32 and had almost two decades to win five majors and pass Nicklaus. The tally in June of 2008, and still today:
|2000||The Open Championship|
|2005||The Open Championship|
|2006||The Open Championship|
Since April of 2008, Tiger has had:
- surgery on damaged cartilage in his knee
- surgery on a torn ACL, torn cartilage and a stress fracture
- a joint problem in his neck (originally thought to be bulging disk)
- a sprained MCL and strained Achilles
- another strained Achilles
- a strained elbow
- back spasms and/or a bulging disk
- back surgery for a pinched nerve
It's the last injury, whatever is going on with his back, that Woods distinguished from all the others. Before he played at Doral, Tiger expressed heightened concern about the back issue, calling a bad back "no joke" before describing how much harder it is to play through it compared to the leg injuries:
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.
And so after all that has happened with Woods since the 2008 U.S. Open win -- injuries, personal scandal and rehab, a new swing, a tumble out of the top 50 in the world, repeated weekend flops at the majors -- he may now face the most serious threat to his chance of catching Nicklaus, or even coming close.
Next week would have been Tiger's 20th appearance at the Masters. He's failed to make the weekend only once at Augusta, in his second year as an amateur in 1996. And while he hasn't won since 2005, he's finished tied for sixth or better seven of the last eight years. The point being that Tiger, whether he puts on a green jacket or not, has become the biggest part of the tournament's identity in this era of the Masters. Now, he won't be there for the first time and we're left asking larger questions about what's left of his career.