It’s impossible to know how serious Tiger Woods’ back problem is, whether it’s a temporary twinge or a serious herniation. But something more is going wrong with his game than back spasms. Woods is having cramps between the ears as well, the kind that come with fraying nerves, the betrayal of aging, and mental self-doubt.
Woods would not have withdrawn Tuesday from his favorite seasonal fire-starter of a tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, unless he was in genuine physical distress. Bay Hill has long been his favorite tune-up, and obviously he sacrificed it because he’s concerned about his ability to be healthy for the Masters.
The problem is that Bay Hill has always been the place where Woods gets his mind right for Augusta. With eight victories in 16 entries, it’s where he convinces himself he’s in good enough form. The larger and more worrying context to his withdrawal is that, at 38, Woods seems increasingly unable to pull together his game, his body, and his head all at the same time in order to compete for major championships. A bad back, for example, isn’t why he’s become so susceptible to three-putts.
The notoriously close-mouthed Woods won’t describe the exact nature of his back problem except to say he’s treating it with “protocols.” Which has set off a frenzy of speculation over what is plaguing him. Which is the cart and which is the horse – his scattered swing or the injury? Has he become so chronically tweaky and injury-prone, with consecutive seasons of knee, elbow, Achilles and back ailments, that he’s less able to work on his game? Or is he more tweaky precisely because he has overworked himself, pushing his body in the gym and on the golf course with constant, torqueing, insecure swing experiments?
Woods himself may not know the order, the cause and effect of his problems. There just is an overall sense of physical disorganization: Last month in Dubai he seemed healthy, but was wild off the tee, so he fiddled with his grip. That seemed to fix something. But then he needed 29 putts on 13 greens.
Woods’s former coach Hank Haney hazarded on his SiriusXM radio show back in January that one of Woods’s problems is that he has over-emphasized upper body bulk, at the expense of other parts of his game.
“My opinion is he did too much of that,” Haney said. “He does a lot of the gym stuff. I know you need to do some for golf, no doubt about it. You need to be in shape, you need to avoid injury, but my opinion is he really overdoes that.”
You wonder if Woods compromised his back with so much weight work.
Instead, he should have been practicing on the greens, Haney suggested. At Torrey Pines, another of his favorite courses, Woods three-putted five times.
“You’re not going to fix that in the gym,” Haney said. “. . . For him to go out and three-putt five times at Torrey Pines, I can’t even believe it. There’s just no way that he put in the time on the putting green and practicing.”
Another theory is that too much muscle has cost him flexibility and thus clubhead speed, with a stiffer, shorter swing. Woods was faster and more fluid when he was a thinner, reedy player. Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee, a frequent Woods critic, buys into this theory and cited actual numbers to support it two weeks ago during the Honda Classic, where Woods shot a Saturday 65 only to withdraw because of spasms after a front-nine 40 on Sunday. Woods’s clubhead speed measured just 115 mph, compared with the 122 generated by Rory McIlroy. In his prime of 2008, Woods’s club speed was a blinding 124 mph.
“Literally and figuratively he doesn’t have the firepower he used to have,” Chamblee said. “He has to try to win now with different nuances.”
But none of that quite explains why Woods has become such a shaky weekend player in the majors. Golf writer Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press points out that Woods hasn’t broken 70 on the weekend of any major since the 2011 Masters. Despite a strong 2013 during which he was named player of the year, Woods couldn’t perform in the rounds that counted most on the toughest courses. He had his worst weekend ever in a major at the U.S. Open at Merion, with a 76-74. Three shots off the lead at the British Open at Muirfield, he shot a Sunday 74.
Golf Channel and NBC commentator Johnny Miller believes Woods may have screwed up both his head and his body by messing around too much with his swing – too many obscure refinements, too many technical adjustments, until he lost his natural feel. With that came a creeping uncertainty that affected the freezing arrogance he used to carry into weekends, until now.
“He seems a little bit prone to getting nervous,” Miller said in a teleconference at the start of the season.
It could be Woods has reached the point that four days of strenuous championship golf is beyond him both physically and mentally, that we are witnessing the burning out of a great prodigy.
Woods began hitting golf balls in front of the public at age 8, and he has been working at the game relentlessly for almost 30 years. There is the sense that we will soon know whether Woods is or isn’t going to be one of those players who can win majors into his 40s. He has never needed a strong performance more than this year if he’s going to pursue Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. The one place where Woods has always been able to contend, no matter what his physical or mental state, is Augusta National.
“If he doesn’t win the Masters, I think it gives a great big uh-oh,” Miller said a few weeks back.
But the bigger uh-oh may have come this week at Bay Hill.
Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post who may know a thing or two about golf – her dad is legendary Fort Worth sportswriter/author Dan Jenkins, widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest golf writer. Contact Sally at firstname.lastname@example.org