The suspense has ended. Inevitability won. Tiger Woods lost. The U.S. Ryder Cup team lost. If an athlete, a sportsman, is unable to play, then there’s nothing to do but make the concession. And so Wednesday, Woods, tenacious, finally gave in.
Per the PGA of America, he withdrew his name from consideration for the Ryder Cup matches at the end of September because of the injury to his back.
He kept hoping, if illogically, since it was obvious he wasn’t ready, or his back, after the microdiscectomy surgery the end of March, still wasn’t ready.
We’ve seen it in football, in baseball and in basketball. In team sports, they put you on the disabled list or the injured reserve list or some category which tells the world you’re not capable of performing at your best—if you can perform at all.
Nobody could order Woods to sit it out. Only his body could force him to make the decision. He refused to obey, the mark of a champion.
Champions don’t listen to the rest of us. Often they don’t even listen to the medical professionals.
Sport is full of tales of guys limping or hobbling from the bench to win a title. Didn’t Woods himself take the 2008 U.S. Open on a knee in such bad condition he winced visibly after almost every shot? But that was a knee. And that was six years ago. This is a back—vertebrae, nerves, agony.
Tom Watson, captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, had been accepting of the delay. “He is Tiger Woods,” was the Watson comment on why he was willing to wait to decide whether the 14-time major champion should be one of the three wild-card picks.
But he isn’t Tiger Woods. Not the Tiger Woods we came to know. And maybe, at his age, and with his situation, he never again will be Tiger Woods.
Now, in retrospect, Woods probably should have sat out the year, rather than returning in June and playing four tournaments, including the British Open. But a man who is willing to take chances at golf others believe are silly is going to take chances with his body.
Hindsight, according to the cliche, is 20-20. Woods couldn’t play in the Masters and couldn’t play in the U.S. Open. He wanted so badly to make it to a major. He made two majors. He wanted so badly to impress Watson, to impress America, with his skills. He failed.
You think Tom Brady wished to miss the 2008 season with that left-knee injury that required surgery? You think Stephen Strasburg willingly underwent Tommy John surgery? No more than Woods wished to have his back sliced open to get pressure off the nerves.
The difference is, not many view golf, and golfers, as they view athletes in other sports—knock-down, in-your-face sports. But if you’re hurt, you’re hurt, whether you’re holding a putter or reaching for an overthrown pass.
Wednesday, Woods faced the unavoidable fact he’s hurt.
“They’ve advised me not to play or practice now,” he said in a statement on his website, referring to his doctors and therapists. In truth, his back advised him.
Woods could barely struggle through the two rounds of last week’s PGA Championship, in which he couldn’t make the cut. “I’m pretty sore,” he said after Friday’s second round. That meant he was very sore. That meant he couldn’t play.
Watson, who also captained the American team in the 1993 Ryder matches, one of the few in the last two decades America won—and with Woods or without Woods, the U.S. will be a huge underdog in these 2014 matches at Gleneagles—understands the emotional link to Woods.
He’s still the most famous golfer on the planet, the man who—loved or despised—is instantly recognizable. And it would be disingenuous not to point out his presence or absence carries tremendous weight commercially for TV ratings and apparel and equipment sales.
When will Tiger Woods next win a tournament?
But he’s not going to be there, and the sooner the declaration was issued, the better. No more doubts.
No more questions. Woods, because of surgery on that left knee, was unable to compete in the ’08 Ryder Cup matches at Valhalla, where the PGA was just held. He will be unable to compete in these matches.
When he can compete remains the great unknown. Will it be weeks? Months? Will he foolishly rush back to enter the tournament in December, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, the one that after years at Sherwood Country Club in Southern California has been shifted to Florida? Will he go about the rehab process carefully?
“My primary wish,” said Watson, one problem removed from his list—that of either naming or not naming Woods—“is for Tiger to be healthy and competitive. And I hope he’ll return to the game soon.”
It’s difficult to say Woods made the wrong choice by entering the Open Championship and PGA, unless we learn that the golf set him back in his recovery time, that he did additional damage to his back.
He kept trying to force the issue. Now he can’t force it. That may be to the benefit of both Tiger Woods and golf, a person and a game that to many are one and the same.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.