As a generation’s finest golfer, Tiger Woods has always done the unthinkable, the unbelievable and the unmatchable, but now his career is in jeopardy and his quest for the most major titles may be unreachable.
His most recent back injury, which resulted in surgery, has left him without a true timetable to return to the course, per Joseph White of the Associated Press (h/t Yahoo! Sports), putting a halt to his uphill climb toward beating Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Throughout his vaunted career, Tiger has overcome obstacles both on and off the course that would turn normal golfers into, well, normal golfers. The list of issues is almost biblical in nature and size: from his swing to his swinging, his divorce to his caddie, his putter, the competition, the fall from grace and the innumerable injuries.
Now the 38-year-old Tiger is faced with his biggest challenge, that of overcoming Father Time in order to capture his most desired goal of 19 major titles. With 14 majors to his name, he would not only have to get back to top form but win five titles as fast as possible in order to stave off the inevitable maladies that accompany aging.
At this rate, he may end up looking to beat another record held by Jack: at 46 years and two months, he was the second-oldest next to 48-year-old Julius Boros to win a major title.
Last year he won five times and appeared to have built a foundation for further success in 2014, meaning winning a major or two. Instead, he is recuperating from surgery and will miss at least half the year if not more.
Sadly, this season’s majors offered Tiger an excellent opportunity for success, since they are set on courses on which he has performed well.
Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, where Tiger won the 2006 Open Championship just a few months after his father’s passing, seems to offer him the best shot to win a major. That is, if he can recuperate fast enough. It would be an amazingly emotional win that would fit perfectly into the Tiger mythology.
In 2006, Tiger managed the course by laying up and staying clear of dangerous fairway bunkers. That would be a good plan for a man recovering from back surgery.
Similarly, the PGA Championship is being played at Valhalla Golf Club, where Tiger won in a playoff in 2000. The Nicklaus-designed course fits Tiger’s playing style and will provide him with confidence if he is able to tee it up there.
But that is a big "if."
Beset by 20 injuries which have placed him on the DL since 1994, Woods has spent more time off the course than his total number of major victories, an unenviable stat he would surely love to reverse if he could.
As he approaches the age of 40, the odds are stacked against him. Only Sam Snead (17 wins) and Vijay Singh (22 wins) have had real success after that age.
That is a select handful of the game’s greatest players which Woods could easily join.
But time and a subsequently uncooperative body may get in his way, not to mention the presence of a rising tide of top-notch young players who grew up modeling themselves after Tiger and would love to beat the pants off of him.
Players like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have joined proven vets like Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose in their quest to bump Tiger from his pedestal and ultimately block him from winning more major titles.
He missed this year’s Masters for the first time in his career and will not play in the U.S. Open. That leaves two majors, the British Open and PGA, which he must win in order to get back on track toward his ultimate goal.
Forget about being No. 1 in the world, which was taken over by Adam Scott this week. Tiger’s career is now based solely on the number of majors he will accrue, and that number seems very, very far off right now.
The March 31 microdiscectomy erased a lot of doubt Tiger had by relieving pain from a pinched nerve, but he is still unable to take a full swing.
At a recent press conference he admitted his lingering doubt prior to the surgery:
Forget about playing golf at the highest level. I couldn't get out of bed. ... I was certainly doubtful at that point. What's it going to feel like? Am I going to be pain free? Am I going to be able to actually do this again, where I can to get out of bed, and go out there and play with my kids and play golf? All those things were up in the air.
Ironically, Tiger played great last year, winning five times and securing the No. 1 position in the world for the umpteenth time. Although he was unable to record a major title, he faced down and beat all who were in his path no matter their age or experience.
With 79 tour wins, he will undoubtedly pass Snead’s record of 82 victories in due time, but that would be a Pyrrhic victory for a man who has publicly dedicated himself to a greater accomplishment.
For an athlete who forcefully attacks the ball like few before him, a back injury could ultimately alter his entire game. Will he be able to play with the physical abandon that has been his hallmark? Or will he become David Toms, a wily player who hits it short and straight and relies on his short game and ball-striking to make up for lack of distance?
Last year, Tiger averaged 293 yards off the tee, good enough to put him among the top 50 players in that category. Today, 25 players average 300 yards or more, and dozens hit it regularly over 295 yards. Can Tiger keep up? Should he have to in order to win again?
How will Tiger feel when Rory McIlroy, who averages 303 yards off the tee, pounds the ball 20 yards farther than him?
Golf instructor Hank Haney believes some changes will be in order after the surgery, as he told Golf Channel:
Knowing the way he thinks and reacts, he's going to find the easiest way that he can to swing with his back, which will probably mean he makes some changes to his swing. ...
He'll make adjustments. He's good at that; he's not scared to change. He's not scared to try something different.
We have seen Tiger make adjustments in his game before, sometimes tinkering with his swing when he didn’t really have to. Other times, he turned to his long irons or fairway woods in lieu of his driver, which was not providing him the necessary accuracy to win.
What will his game look like after surgery? What will his mindset be?
Although he says the doubt has been erased, can he obliterate the loss of consistent playing time and the physical damage of surgery in order to resurrect his season, let alone his future?
At one time, we might have said that this is Tiger Woods we are talking about, the guy who won the U.S. Open on a broken leg, the guy who has surmounted obstacles too numerous to count, the greatest player the game has ever known.
Now, we look at him and wonder if time has finally caught up.