Tiger Woods, to the surprise of absolutely no one remotely aware of the health issues of the former world No. 1, is officially out of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
Woods confirmed via his own website what had been golf’s worst-kept secret: Tiger, sidelined since March 9 with a bad back and rehabbing from microdiscectomy surgery on March 31, will skip the men’s second major of the season. Tiger told Mark Soltau, who bylined the report on TigerWoods.com, that he's still optimistic about the future:
"Unfortunately, I won't be there because I'm not yet physically able to play competitive golf," Woods said. "I'd like to convey my regrets to the USGA leadership, the volunteers and the fans that I won't be at Pinehurst. The U.S. Open is very important to me, and I know it's going to be a great week. Despite missing the first two majors, and several other important tournaments, I remain very optimistic about this year and my future."
Woods, who blamed a hotel’s soft mattress for back pain he suffered during last year’s FedExCup playoff series, has not played competitively since carding that 78 in the final round at Doral and subsequently undergoing a procedure to fix a herniated disc.
While he said at the time he hoped to return to the PGA Tour before the fall, he wrote on his website in early May that his "very slow" rehab process made it impossible to circle a specific date on the calendar for his comeback.
He reiterated later in the month that he had no idea when he would be physically able to play catch with his kids, let alone compete at the highest levels, and he had to leave the decision of when to return up to his surgeons.
"I think that’s been kind of the realization to all of this is that there’s no date," Woods said from Congressional Country Club to promote his Quicken Loans National, set to start two weeks after the Open. "It’s just take it on a daily basis. It’s not going to be up to me whether I play or not. It’s going to be up to my docs. Obviously, I want to play now."
Word had circulated for some time from the likes of Tiger confidant Notah Begay, Suzann Pettersen (herself the victim of spinal woes), and the patient himself that returning to competition in time to play Pinehurst was out of reach for the tour’s injury-plagued moneymaker.
"He missed being at Augusta and certainly was watching the tournament," Begay, Woods’ teammate at Stanford, said on CBS Radio. "I think he needs to give [his rehab] a minimum of 90 days to make sure that scar tissue heals up appropriately and he doesn’t run the risk of re-injuring it. So that would push him past the U.S. Open."
The 38-year-old Woods was quite cognizant of the fact that his aging and injury-plagued body was wearing down.
"He’s well aware of that," Begay said about Woods’ recognition that he was getting no younger. "It’s certainly not a big secret. It’s not something that he’s trying to ignore. ... He realizes that he’s approaching 40."
Begay said Woods continued to target two records that would seal his place in history as the best golfer ever -- Sam Snead’s 82 all-time tour wins and Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles. A fitter Woods should have no problem attaining at least one of those records and having a go at the other.
"He only needs four more to surpass [Snead’s mark] ," Begay said, "so that’s pretty much a lock if he can stay somewhat healthy for the next two or three years."
Overtaking Nicklaus will be a more daunting proposition for the 14-time major winner.
"[That’s a] little bit loftier considering he hasn’t won a major since 2008," Begay said. "The window’s closing. He’s much closer to the end of his career."
Woods, who has not won a major title since he did so on a broken leg and a bum knee at the 2008 U.S. Open, last hit a ball in competition in that final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He finished T25 after carding a 4-over 76, a 73, a 66 on Saturday that offered a glimmer of hope that he had turned around his worst-ever start to a season, and that gaudy 78 in Sunday’s finale.
His back injury forced Woods to pursue a lighter practice schedule during the offseason and contributed greatly to the worst start to a year since he turned professional. Indeed, after a Player of the Year 2013 season in which he won five times but went major-less, Woods returned to competition in 2014 at one of his favorite venues, Torrey Pines. Despite having won seven times on the course throughout his career, Tiger missed his first-ever 54-hole cut to post the dreaded "MDF."
Things did not get much better from there, as Woods finished T41 in Dubai a week later, withdrew with back pain from the final round of the Honda Classic in February, and agonized his way through four days in Miami in March.
With Woods officially out of Pinehurst, the golf world will begin prognosticating about whether he’ll be ready to take on Hoylake -- one of the four Tiger-friendly tracks hosting majors in 2014 that offered opportunities to grab that 15th grand slam title -- in the British Open. We, along with the rehabbing superstar, can only wait.
"As for my return to golf, I really don't know. I'm doing everything I can and listening to my doctors and working on a strength program, and then we just have to see how my back is," Woods said in May. "Some people heal up in three months, some people take four months, some people take longer. I just don't know."