Updated: Feb. 10, 10:57 a.m.
If you thought what you saw from Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines was bad, you were in for a really rude awakening in the following weeks.
Woods traveled to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, an event he’d twice won before. He owned a 68.17 scoring average in the tournament before opening with an agonizing birdie-free 5-over 77. He appeared to be moving gingerly the entire round. The next day, he put himself out of his own misery, withdrawing before his second-round tee time due to a back spasm.
It’d only been two weeks into Woods’ comeback, but the question is already valid: Is Woods’ attempted career revival ill-fated?
That thought was furthered on Feb. 10 when Woods announced he was withdrawing from his scheduled starts at the Genesis Open and Honda Classic due to back issues. At this moment, it’s really looking dire.
Still, the answer on his future isn’t clear yet – golf and Woods are too complicated for that – but at the very least, below we offer you a reminder of the path to this situation, what Woods is actually dealing with, and what his future could hold.
How he got here
While it’s been nine years since Woods last won a major, let’s not forget that as recently as 2014, he was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
After a major scandal and injuries threw him off course in 2010 and 2011, Woods came back strong in a three-win 2012 campaign and followed with a five-win 2013 season, in which the rankings only validated what we already knew – he was once again the best golfer in the world.
Let’s be clear, the Woods of 2012-13 wasn’t quite like that of his prime years,. He appeared to be back on track and with a chance to once again make a run at golf’s all-time records, however.
Then the injuries returned with a vengeance. After experiencing back problems at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, Woods had surgery on a pinched nerve in his back, forcing him to miss three months of action. More back problems occurred near the end of 2014 and early in 2015, forcing Woods into a more limited schedule once again.
He finally seemed to be showing promise, with T18-MC-T10 in his final three starts of 2015. He would undergo a back surgery that September and a follow-up the next month, leaving him on the mend for quite a while.
But in less than two months, things have trundled so far downhill again. Woods missed the cut by four shots in his PGA Tour return at the Farmers Insurance Open and now has seen back issues pop up once again in his Dubai withdrawal and his Genesis and Honda back outs.
We’re only three events total back into Woods’ comeback, but there’s already some major (possibly fatal, career-wise) setbacks.
What’s it been like for Woods since 2014? To call the injury-riddled 14-time major champion a shell of himself these past few years would honestly be kind.
Woods once made 142 weekends in a row on the PGA Tour and overall missed just nine cuts in his first 298 Tour starts as a pro. But, dating back to 2014, Woods has now missed seven cuts in his last 16 PGA Tour starts.
From 1996-2012, Woods only withdrew from a PGA Tour event five times. He did so three times (in the span of just eight events) between 2014 and 2015.
And it’s not like Woods has been lighting it up when he reaches the weekend, as he has just one top 10 on the PGA Tour in 19 starts since 2014. Even in the down 2010-11 period, Woods had four top 10s in 21 starts. In his prime of 1997-2009, he averaged more than 12 top 10s per PGA Tour season.
Unsurprisingly, scoring average and individual scores do him no favors, either. Woods has never had worse than a 69.2 scoring average in a full PGA Tour season (15+ events).
That remains true, but in a protracted seven-event 2014 campaign, his scoring average would have rocketed to 72.5. It would’ve been 71.9 in an 11-event 2015. Better, but not exactly ideal.
Woods once went an entire PGA Tour season (2000) shooting worse than 73 just once. That looks even more amazing when you consider his 2014-15 numbers: fourteen times in 53 rounds he shot 75 or worse.
Overall, it’s astounding how diminished Woods has looked in recent years. Then again, dealing with injuries and having to play so intermittently will do that to a person.
What they’re saying
Of course Woods’ peers and golf’s luminaries are often asked about the man, so there’s no shortage of opinion on the 41-year-old.
Here’s a sampling of quotes on Woods since he returned (With an indication of when they uttered them):
Jack Nicklaus, 18-time major champion (pre-Torrey Pines):
“I still think that he’s got 10 years of majors in front of him. Physically, he’s a great-looking specimen. He’s got a great golf swing, he’s got a great game. If he can mentally get the game back together to where he believes he can do what he wants to do, we’ll see. Out of 40 majors in the next 10 years, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that he can win five of them.”
John Cook, longtime Woods friend (pre-Torrey Pines):
“He’s very fresh mentally. A lot of guys have won a lot of tournaments in their 40s, and none of them were Tiger Woods. Not even close. So if there’s anybody that can have a second career in their 40s, it’s going to be Tiger. The longevity depends on how long he wants to do it.”
Notah Begay, longtime Woods friend (pre-Torrey Pines):
“Once that (health) becomes a non-issue, we’re going to see a lot of the emphasis placed on winning.”
Ernie Els, four-time major champion (pre-Torrey Pines):
“If players like myself, Darren Clarke and Mark O’Meara won (majors) in our 40s, surely Tiger thinks he can do it too. I am sure it’s on his agenda.”
Jason Day, World No. 1 (after Tiger opened in 76 at Torrey Pines):
“We can’t just break down everything he did today because it’s been 17 months (away). Let him go a year, let him play and go from there. You know, that’s the same with us. We can’t panic too much at the start of the year. I always look back at it and look at Rory (McIlroy’s) year last year. He really didn’t do a lot until the FedEx Cup and he ended up being the FedEx Cup champion. So just be patient.”
Gary Player, nine-time major champion (post-Dubai WD):
“I don’t think he’ll win another major, but I sincerely hope he does. Nothing would give me a greater thrill than Tiger winning another major, but it’s an awfully big task. He has a monumental challenge ahead.”
Butch Harmon, former Woods swing coach (post-Dubai WD):
“He’s been off for almost a year and a half, and now he’s come back, but he still can’t finish a tournament. To me, that’s not a good sign. We all want to see him playing well again, but right now I’m concerned that someone I have admired for so long, and who I believe is the best player who ever lived, might not be able to play at any kind of level again.”
Woods went for an ambitious schedule to start the year, as he was planning to compete in four events in five weeks. Well, we said ambitious. In the end, Woods will have only completed one event in that schedule. Of a potential 16 rounds there, he only managed three before deciding no more for now.
But for Woods, whatever his current issues, the goal is the same: Be ready for the Masters.
“Once the season ends, typically, in the fall, I start thinking about what I need to do to get ready for Augusta. I’ve done it for 20 years. Whether it’s equipment or it’s swing or whatever it is, in the back of my head I’m getting ready for Augusta.”
Woods is still making the shift to TaylorMade equipment, too, let’s not forget. His future is as murky as ever right now, and honestly, it’s a legitimate question whether he’ll even play the Masters at this point.
Can Woods get healthy? And even if he’s full strength, does he still have the ability to dominate against an increasingly powerful young crop? What about his run at records, is that still in the cards?
As pretty much always, more questions than answers with Woods. But the intrigue won’t soon dissipate.