PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Four days after Tiger Woods declared himself unfit to play more than nine holes at The Players Championship, he said he expected to be at the U.S. Open next month.
“Will do all I can to get there,” he said on Twitter.
That only shows how far away he is from catching, much less passing, the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
The question used to be whether Woods was going to win a major.
Now it’s whether he’ll even play.
Only he knows how badly his left knee and left Achilles are injured, and Woods rarely has been willing to offer more than the bare minimum about his health, if that much. He withdrew last year from The Players Championship with a neck injury he said had been bothering him for a month. He said he ruptured his right Achilles in December 2008, yet never mentioned it until 16 months later.
It’s no longer his pursuit of Nicklaus that leads to speculation. It’s his health, too.
Woods skipped one tournament (Quail Hollow) because he wanted to give a “minor injury” time to heal. He withdrew from the next one (Players Championship) without even getting to the 10th hole and with a nine-hole score of 42 that ranks among his worst.
The biggest change with Woods is the perception of him.
Had this happened five years ago, the focus would have been entirely on his injury, not the score on his card. Yet there was plenty of chatter among players last week that Woods might not have been so quick to leave had he not been 6-over par.
Opinions about whether he could catch Nicklaus used to be based on his form.
In an online survey for readers, Golf Digest asked if they thought he would break the record. This was after Woods won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002, and 73 percent said “yes.” Two years later, when Woods had gone eight majors without winning and started to work with Hank Haney, the magazine asked the same question, and 71 percent said “no.”
Such is the fickle nature of fans.
But it’s different now.
This isn’t only a matter of Woods changing his swing. He hasn’t been the same since he was caught cheating on his wife, which led to divorce nine months later. There was a neck injury last year, a cortisone shot in his right ankle over Christmas, and now it’s the left knee and left Achilles from the shot he hit in the third round of the Masters.
The key indicators are shocking.
In the 21 stroke-play events dating to his return at the 2010 Masters, Woods has not won a tournament, has finished in the top 10 only seven times and has $2.1 million in earnings. In the same number of events prior to his downfall — on Thanksgiving night in 2009 — he had eight wins, 17 finishes in the top 10 and earned $13.4 million.
Before his troubles, 55 percent of his rounds were in the 60s. Since then, only 34 percent of his rounds have been in the 60s. His scoring average is 1.8 strokes higher, which equates to seven more shots per tournaments.
Now mix in the uncertainty of his health.
Can he win five more majors to break Nicklaus’ record? Can he win 12 more tournaments to break the PGA Tour record for most wins by Sam Snead?
“I thought it was a slam dunk before Thanksgiving a year-and-a-half ago,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. “I started having serious doubts after his withdrawal last week. He’s losing valuable time right now with injuries, swing coaches, reinventing himself. You don’t have that much time in a career to break those kind of records.
“For him to come back after all of this, it’s going to be a hell of a mountain to climb.”
Making the climb even taller is the emergence of so many young players — Graeme McDowell at 31 is the oldest of the last four major champions — and the diminishing aura of Woods. He could get that back by winning, but right now Woods can’t even contend.
If his head still is not in the game — maybe that’s why he’s missing all those putts — he now has recurring leg problems.
The Achilles appears to be the biggest problem. Swing coach Sean Foley said he was surprised that Woods looked so sharp during practice rounds last week considering he had gone a month without practicing. On the final hole Woods played at Sawgrass, he hit his driver 40 yards by PGA champion Martin Kaymer. But when Woods climbed out of a bunker behind the green, he appeared to be taking baby steps.
Playing last week probably was a mistake. If Woods had skipped The Players, he would have had three more weeks to let the Achilles heal properly heading into a summer of three majors. Now he’s back where he was.
There were four weeks between the Masters and The Players. There are four weeks between The Players and the U.S. Open. It could be that Woods will be in the same shape at Congressional as he was last week at Sawgrass — one bad swing away from that “chain reaction” in his left leg that caused him to quit after nine holes.
Former PGA champion Paul Azinger once thought Woods for sure would break Snead’s record of 82 tour wins (Woods is at 71) and probably would top Nicklaus in the majors, although he never thought it was a lock.
Now he’s not so sure about either record.
“The big unknown is the severity of the problem,” Azinger said. “The mental aspect still must be addressed — having the ability to find someone he can talk and talk with. He’s angry at himself, angry at the world, angry at people tearing him down. But physically, for the first time, I’m starting to wonder.”