Where next for Tiger Woods? Never mind in a broad sense, quite literally the answer to that question is unknown. “I don’t know,” was Woods’s blunt answer when asked when and where he will appear next. The 38-year-old’s early exit from the US PGA Championship cannot be classed in any way as a surprise. Nor can the suggestion – and it was only that – from Woods that he will shut down in a competitive sense for an extended length of time.
As Woods talked of hitting the gym in an attempt to restore the core strength he believes lost through back injury, he was unable– or unwilling – to put a timeframe on his competitive return to golf.
There may be little option. Woods has failed to qualify for the forthcoming FedEx playoff series. He has no confirmed playing appearances for the remainder of 2014. Speculation has pointed towards him featuring at the inaugural America’s Golf Cup in Argentina in late October; there would be four million dollar reasons for the 14-times major winner to do so.
The issue of Woods’s participation or otherwise in the Ryder Cup remains a vexing one for the United States captain, Tom Watson. Someone with a sense of ambition – or mischief – and spare money to spend in an overseeing role at the forthcoming Italian or Welsh Open might want to contact Woods’s management to establish whether he can be coaxed into a brief appearance on the European Tour, in a final effort to prove his Gleneagles ambitions to Watson.
The Ryder Cup scenario need not be complicated. Woods has given quite enough to golf to be worthy of selection, should he declare both his fitness and commitment. The theory that he cares little for the biennial contest between his country and Europe has been offset by regular, strong statements that he wants to play in Scotland late next month.
The notion that Watson will come under commercial and political pressure to name Woods as a wildcard pick cannot be ignored. Ted Bishop, the PGA of America’s president, claimed only this week: “If you had an opportunity to put Tiger on that team, if he is healthy I would take my chances every time. If I am going to win or lose, I am going to do it with a guy like Tiger Woods on my team.”
There is a major fitness “if” in there, of course. Officially the worst season in Woods’s decorated professional career has a strong mitigating circumstance in the form of a back injury. At Valhalla, winces and limps proved far more common than Woods birdies.
“I need to get my glutes strong again, my abs and my core back to where I used to have them. They are just not quite there yet,” Woods said. “Obviously by playing, you can’t burn the candle at both ends. I need to get stronger physically and be back to where I was.
“It is certainly very frustrating any time you have to sit out because of surgery and to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with this year. It’s no fun. 2008 wasn’t a whole lot of fun, even though I won four times that year. It still wasn’t a whole lot of fun trying to play through that. Consequently, I missed nine months.”
Given that Woods famously won a major championship with a broken leg, the odds on him listening to advice that he should seek a similar recuperation stint this time are long. The growing sense, though, is that Woods is realising as much himself.
Notah Begay, the Golf Channel analyst closest to Woods, has made comments that shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. “This [missed cut] could be a blessing in disguise for Tiger Woods because now there is a forced layoff. We might not see him until his event in December, which might be a good thing and allow him to give some time for that back to repair itself. It might be something that he needs, which is a forced layoff.”
Begay’s co-pundit Frank Nobilo looked a little deeper. “For the first time in his career, he has to take stock,” Nobilo said. “His career has gone through so fast for us, 18 years of brilliance, and finally he is at a stumbling block. For the first time in his career, he is going to have to re-evaluate.”
When asked if he felt old when competing nowadays, Woods replied: “I felt old a long time ago.” He added: “It’s hard because you want the bigger muscles controlling the golf swing. I have got to rely on my hands to do it. The club face is rotating so fast through impact because I’m just not able to get my arms and the body in the correct spot.
“It [the back problem] throws everything off. I can’t get anywhere near the positions that I’m accustomed to getting to. I can’t do it. I’ve got to rely on timing, hands and hopefully I can time it just right.”
Woods’s issue is not merely physical. It is mentally tough for someone so accustomed to success to struggle in front of the watching world. There may even be an inner realisation from Woods that he will never scale golf’s greatest heights again. For now, there is a clear excuse for that: Woods should use it in downing tools for the rest of this year.
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