** Update: The Jason Day quotes (below) that Golf Australia published on October 18 were actually taken by that publication from an earlier Golf Digest feature by Brian Wacker about Tiger Woods and presented without attribution. We apologize for the oversight.
Tiger Woods’ to-play-or-not-to-play conundrum may have had the golf audience waiting to turn the next page of the 14-major winner’s career script, but Jason Day believes his mentor won’t take the stage until sometime in 2017 — if then.
"I never really had any faith in him coming back this year. The state of his game, I'm not sure. His back is so sore," Day recently told Golf Australia. "I think we'll see him sometime next year, but I'm not sure when."
A much-hyped Woods-Phil Mickelson pairing at last week’s Safeway Open following Mickelson’s success in leading the U.S. to Ryder Cup victory was scrapped after the top of the marquee ticket withdrew his name from consideration. Watching Lefty finish second at the British Open had Woods especially anxious to get back in the thick of things, Day said.
"I think he misses being out here, which is understandable because the competition is so addicting," said Day, who noted that Mickelson’s Open performance "got him going."
That may explain Woods getting ahead of himself and committing to the Safeway just three days before reality hit and he recused himself from the proceedings. After the reality that, as Day observed, "he knows he can’t push it," Tiger also pulled out of next month’s Turkish Airlines Open, though he announced he expected to start in his Hero World Challenge in December.
The best laid plans and all that …
Day, who communicates often with Woods via text, has his own ongoing back woes. The oft-injured game’s top-ranked player withdrew from the second round of last month’s Tour Championship after quitting the BMW Championship two weeks earlier for the same reason. He recently announced he would miss some two months of competition to rest and rehab his back.
Amid his own health concerns, Day has also spent time with Woods at his Jupiter, Florida, home, and said three surgeries on Tiger’s back as well as the strength of the field he would face if/when he does return present daunting challenges to the aging superstar.
"The game is so tight with how competitive it is and how hard it is to win," Day said. "I don’t think winning is going to come as easily as it was for him back in the past."
Day was not alone in his skepticism about Woods’ imminent return. Safeway Open host and outspoken NBC Sports golf analyst Johnny Miller contended Tiger’s no-show was no shocker.
"I had so many texts saying, 'Congratulations, Tiger's coming.' And I would reply every time like, 'Yeah, it's great, but I'll believe it when he's actually putting the peg in the ground Thursday morning, and is ready to go and hits a shot and is not grimacing,’" Miller said on Golf Channel. "So I wasn't convinced that he was going to actually tee it up. I wanted to believe it, but my intuition said I'll believe it when it happens."
Observing Woods "gingerly" navigating his vice captain’s golf cart at Hazeltine convinced Miller that, despite Tiger’s claim that it was his "vulnerable" golf game that kept him sidelined, all was not well with the winner of 79 PGA Tour events.
"When he got in and out of that cart, he was a little — he didn't look like he was jumping out and saying, 'Hi, guys,’" Miller said. "So I'm not so sure how healthy he really is."
Day’s update would seem to support Miller’s theory. And though Woods’ protege anticipates his boyhood idol’s return to competition, he suggested fans temper their expectations.
"I think the hardest thing for him is just to try and get the rust out and really get back to game ready sharpness, which is obviously a difficult thing to do," said Day. "Although we’re expecting big things, I don’t expect too much from him, even though he is Tiger Woods."