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Tiger Woods’s Back Has Taken Him Hostage

He just had his fourth back surgery since 2014, meaning we likely won’t see him at a major until next year

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

At a Tuesday press conference to announce the design for his new golf course in Missouri, Tiger Woods was vague about when he might make a return to playing professional golf. “The back is progressing,” Woods told reporters at the event. He cited good days and bad days, but refused to give a time frame for his recovery. Two days later, we know why.

On Thursday, TigerWoods.com posted that Woods had back surgery to “alleviate ongoing pain in his back and leg.” Woods has now had four separate surgeries on his back, the first coming in March 2014. That would be worrisome enough for any professional athlete, and it becomes even more troublesome because his livelihood comes from his ability to violently and consistently contort his back. But the end of the story was eye-catching:

Six months is a long time for any golfer in April, when the PGA season is just heating up. It’s even longer when you’re 41 years old, already have a nasty injury history, and were supposed to be the Chosen One to chase down Jack Nicklaus’s major tournament record. Tiger hasn’t won a major in nine years, and now has as many top-25 finishes as he does back surgeries since 2014. The six-month recovery time means, barring something miraculous, we won’t see him compete in a major until 2018, when he’ll be 42. (He last competed in a major at the 2015 PGA Championship, at the young age of 39.) Only 20 golfers have won majors at age 42 or over, and just three have done it this century.

Tiger was once much more than the most dominant presence in golf. He was the man who single-handedly created bumps in the sport’s television ratings, sponsorships, and even tournament purses. He bent courses to his will and created such havoc that the famed Augusta National was “Tiger-proofed” after he throttled the Masters in 1997 and 2001. But the denouement of his career contrasts with that of other legendary athletes. His skill didn’t gradually fade, and he hasn’t been sent off into the sunset with a 60-point game in front of his home crowd. Instead, with announcements of more surgeries, more recovery time, and his biological clock ticking ever onward, that memory of Woods keeps slipping further and further away.

“He’ll never be what he was,” Fred Funk told Michael Weinreb for The Ringer in April. “And he knows that, and everybody knows that now. And the guys that he would have to beat now never even played against him. They don’t know. They’ve only read about Tiger.”

On Tuesday in Missouri, Woods joked about a possible future on the Champions Tour. “Nine more years,” he said, pointing at Tom Lehman, who was moderating the event. “That’s all I’ve got, nine more years before I’m going to beat you on the senior tour.” Even that bit of gallows humor (which later drove Golf Twitter into a frenzy) now feels like a stretch. Will Tiger ever return to golf? Can Tiger ever return to golf?

I guess we’ll see in six months.