'Tiger's back' goes from accolade to ache
US golfer Tiger Woods talks about his back injury during a press conference in Washington, DC, March 24, 2014 - by Jim Watson
A year after fans yelled "Tiger's back" in praise of three wins to start his best season in years, they now utter the same phrase and shake their heads, wondering if his aching torso will keep him from ever again being the same magical shotmaker who won 14 major titles.
"The will to win hasn't changed," Woods said. "It's physically, am I able to do it?"
Woods said Tuesday that he would not play in the Masters for the first time since his 1995 Augusta National debut following back surgery to repair a pinched nerve after a ruptured disc.
The move is seen as strengthening his chances to play in the remaining three majors of the year but could keep him from defending his title at next month's Players Championship.
It's just the latest injury setback for the world number one.
Last month, Woods withdrew in the final round of the Honda Classic, battled back spasms to a last-round 78 at Doral and skipped the Arnold Palmer Invitational, typically his last warmup for the first major at Augusta National.
Woods, chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won a major since the 2008 US Open.
This year's majors offered three courses where Woods has won majors before -- Augusta, Hoylake and Valhalla -- and a US Open at Pinehurst, where he was a runner-up.
But after missing the Masters, will the 38-year-old US superstar be healthy enough to take advantage of the rest?
Woods has been riddled with setbacks, missing four of the prior 22 majors before next week with knee and leg injuries.
"I've had knee injury, wrist injury, elbows, you name it. Now I've had back, neck," Woods said. "It's the nature of repetitive sport. We do the same motion. So you have repetitive injuries and most of my injuries are that.
"I don't quite heal as fast. I just don't bounce back like I used to. That's just part of aging."
Watching Woods play once brought envy from rivals and inspiration to a rising generation of players. Seeing him struggle with a body that has endured punishment Nicklaus never did now elicits sympathy.
"His golf swing is very physical, to the detriment of his body," said 2010 US Open winner Graeme McDowell. "Golf can have a wear and tear effect on knees and hips and backs.
"I feel for Tiger, what he has gone through. He's a physical player who creates a lot of speed and a lot of power and his body is starting to struggle a little bit."
Woods has a devilish predicament. Push too hard and his body might not hold up for four rounds at a major. Practice too little and his game might not be ready for the clutch putts and vital chips needed for major success.
- 'Just deal with it' -
Back pain had forced Woods to adapt his reconstructed swing on the fly when he feels the tightness start.
"Sometimes we're able to self-adjust when we're out there and it just will feel better," Woods said. "Other times you have got to just deal with it."
Woods, who has not broken 70 on the weekend at a major since the 2011 Masters, needs to win a major this year to stay on the record pace he once far exceeded with Nicklaus having won his 15th major at age 38.
"It's going to be hard for him to achieve Jack's record, but if anyone can do it, I'm sure he can find a way because we all know how good he is," McDowell said.
"Taking Tiger's fitness out of it, winning major championships is, I feel, getting harder and harder for everyone, including the best player maybe that has ever lived in Tiger.
"He has got more than just his body to be fighting. Everyone is getting better. There are a lot of great players in the world now."
Seven-time major winner Palmer sees Woods' mounting injuries as a drag on Woods' chances to pass Nicklaus.
"It lessens the possibility of that happening. It's going to be tough," Palmer said. "It's going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of game that's necessary to win majors.
"These young guys are tough. As well as they have been playing it's going to be tough for anybody, whether it be Tiger or whomever, to continue to win major championships."