Editor’s note: This article appears in the Aug. 15 issue of Golfweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The state of Tiger Woods’ golf is in more disarray than ever. That is no small development, because drama famously has shadowed him in recent years. This time he came back too soon from March 31 microdiscectomy and has had recurring back problems in his last two tournaments. Hence his body and game are a mess. His swing was so off here at the PGA Championship that he hit some gallery- scattering drives 50 yards left and some 50 yards right. He may have wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but here he played wounded Army golf.
So Woods left town with medical and technical issues, a two-way miss and a clouded future. These days more questions and opinions than answers surround him. No one knows when he will heal. No one knows when he’ll return to good form.
This much is clear: He shouldn’t have played here, because he wasn’t ready to contend. He made a bad decision, and subsequently his back flared up and his swing was inconsistent and he risked more loss of confidence. Gone are the days when the winner of 79 PGA Tour titles, including 14 major championships, would show up only if prepared.
“He wasn’t ready to come back and wasn’t ready to say he wasn’t ready to come back,” golf broadcaster David Feherty observed.
Woods’ was another lost season. Seven starts and no finish better than 25th. He hasn’t had a top 10 since last August. He will miss the FedEx Cup playoffs. The impressive eight PGA Tour victories of 2012-13, crafted after climbing out of an abyss of personal problems, seems a distant memory. One would think he’s too good not to play well again. But he needs to repair his back. That is Job 1. Then he needs to improve an off-kilter swing and take the left side of the course out of play.
“He’s got to fix the back before you can draw conclusions about the swing,” said Peter Kostis, CBS analyst and renowned instructor.
Woods certainly is in no condition to play in the Sept. 26-28 Ryder Cup. U.S. captain Tom Watson has said in recent weeks that Woods would be picked only if healthy and playing well. Because Woods is neither, he would do well to remove himself from consideration and take heat off Watson.
His sloppy 74-74—148 at Valhalla merely continued a trend.
He made a double bogey and seven bogeys in missing the cut by five strokes. In watching his fourth missed cut in 66 major championships as a professional, it seemed as if we were observing an aging, beat-up heavyweight boxing champion. An old Willie Mays with the New York Mets came to mind.
The back and swing problems we’ve seen over the past year make one think the central question about his victory totals has changed – from our wondering about his passing Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors to whether he’ll beat Sam Snead’s 82 Tour titles.
Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said after the first round that Woods “looks like he needs to play some golf.”
Yes, but. When Woods’ back acted up in Round 2, it became evident he needs to sit out until he gets well, as he did after the 2011 PGA.
Consider this: Graham DeLaet underwent a microdiscectomy in late 2010. He says he returned too early when playing two tournaments six months later. Then he sat out until the ’12 season but wasn’t confident about “lashing at balls and going after tee shots hard” for another year. What’s more, DeLaet, 32, says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent healthy again.”
Surgeries and recovery rates vary, of course. But the DeLaet story suggests Woods came back prematurely. Squirrelly shots and high scores support the thesis.
Another cautionary tale is that Kostis’ son returned to competitive golf too soon and needed a second microdiscectomy.
Woods said his back went out on the range before the second round here and he felt the same pain and spasms as the previous Sunday when he said his sacrum was dislodged. He said he “couldn’t make a backswing” Friday as a result.
As he went 4 over on the first seven holes, he often bent over and walked gingerly. He grimaced. He held his lower right back.
Afterward, Woods said, “I need to get back in the gym and get stronger.” That kind of talk makes Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst, bristle. Among those who think Woods is too muscle-bound and not flexible enough, Chamblee suggests Woods take up yoga.
“Right now he’s like a refrigerator on two pool cues,” Chamblee said.
As for his swing, many contend Woods has the driver yips.
Many have expressed RXs. The likes of Lee Trevino, Paul Azinger and Chamblee have said they can fix Woods’ motion in a few minutes. Former Tour player Parker McLachlin tweeted on opening day, “Please turn off your brain and leave (coach Sean) Foley on the range. You’ll stop missing it both ways.”
“He has been so into this mythical mathematical perfection (TrackMan numbers) that he’s forgotten how to be an athlete,” Chamblee said.
Azinger, a former PGA champion, hardly disagrees, saying, “I’d like to see him become less of an engineer and more of an artist.”
Chamblee said he believes “with every cell in my body” that Woods’ swing, which has shortened since surgery, is the root of the back problems. He strongly maintains that the former No. 1 has too much forward shaft leading into the ball and “offsets it by leaning his spine angle back,” causing spinal stress.
For certain, the juxtaposition of Woods and Rory McIlroy has been striking of late. When Woods played with Nicklaus at the 2000 PGA here, it was widely viewed as a passing-the-torch moment. Now something similar seems to be happening.
As one longtime touring pro said, “McIlroy plays like a kid without a care. Tiger plays like he’s on his last ball.”