Tiger Woods is planning to play at Bay Hill Club & Lodge next week and there’s probably nothing you or I or even his doctor can say at this point to stop him.
We all should wish he wouldn’t. His back needs a bigger break than 10 days off since he was last seen wincing his way to 78 at the Cadillac Championship and letting caddies pick his ball up out of the hole.
“Tiger is continuing to get treatment and get himself in a good place for next week,” his agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “He intends to be at Bay Hill.”
Bay Hill is just an unnecessary means to an end. Woods has his sights set on the Masters in a month and his game obviously isn’t in the best form to end a major-less drought that is approaching six years. He feels he needs another competitive start to be ready when he gets to Augusta National Golf Club. There’s no arguing that.
But getting back on the course too soon for 72 holes might hurt him more than help. The long haul is vastly more important than the short term right now, and a month of rest, treatment and careful preparation would do him a lot more good than trying to win for the ninth time at Arnold Palmer’s place.
What we know about the specifics of Woods’ back problems can be fit into a thimble. He has “spasms” that “flare up” during some swings. Back spasms dropped him to his knees last August at the Barclays Championship and forced him to withdraw 13 holes into the final round at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.
Then on Sunday at Trump National Doral – after he moved himself in position to contend with a Saturday 66 – Woods winced in pain and reached for his back after a bunker shot from an awkward stance on the sixth hole. He wasn’t the same the rest of the day, playing in obvious discomfort even though he could still deliver a few 300-yard-plus drives along the way.
“The deeper the flexion, the worse it felt,” he said. “The driver felt fine. As I said, the more flexion I had, the worse it felt.”
Woods’ 78 was the worst final round of his career. He failed to make a birdie as he fell from third to 25th. He left with more questions than answers.
Has he undergone an MRI? What kind of treatment is he getting? Is this something that could get worse?
“Well, it is back spasms, so we’ve done all the protocols and it’s just a matter of keeping everything aligned so I don’t go into that,” said Woods, declining to explain what those “protocols” are.
A doctor once told Woods in 2008 that his torn knee ligaments contributed to two stress fractures in his tibia and suggested he shut it down for six weeks. Woods refused and told the doctor he was going to play and win the U.S. Open two weeks later. He did.
So that’s where Woods’ mind is when it comes to majors.
The most telling answer Woods gave last week, however, came Saturday after posting the lowest score of anyone in the field all week. On his best day he was asked whether he was able to go through the round without thinking of the back.
“No,” he said, admitting that “it’s pretty sore.”
There’s a wide range of back issues. Fred Couples has endured nearly constant pain for 20 years since tearing an outer layer of a disk in his lower back in a 1994 tournament at Doral. He was 34 at the time and won only four PGA Tour events since.
Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner and 2012 Masters runner-up, withdrew from or skipped the last three majors of 2013 dealing with back issues that come back every time he starts hitting balls again.
Where Woods stands on the injury scale, only he and his doctors know. But the reality is this has been bothering him for at least seven months. He needs his back to hold up another seven years to accomplish his career goals.
Whether you love Tiger or hate him, he’s far and away the most important figure in golf. He is the engine that kept the PGA Tour afloat and thriving through the recent economic crisis. He’s the one who drives the ratings and the page views and water cooler conversation.
Golf desperately needs Tiger Woods catching Sam Snead’s win record and chasing Jack Nicklaus’ major standard. Whether he actually catches Jack’s mark of 18 major victories is irrelevant – as long as he just keeps threatening to do it. Half the world hopes he succeeds and the other half passionately hopes he fails.
His body, however, is the biggest problem. Continued major issues with his back, knees and Achilles tendon through the past six years have compromised his durability. At 38, he’s not a young man and time is no longer on his side.
Woods needs to listen to his body. And maybe even listen to himself.
“Normally things like this, you shut it down for a while and then get back up and get the strength and everything developed around it,” he said at Doral. “I just need to get healthy enough to where I can put the club in that position.”
One week might not be enough to cure what ails him. One bad flex and he’s right back where he was with only two weeks left before the Masters.
Perhaps taking it easy, undergoing treatment and focusing on his putting and short game would do him more good before Augusta than the rigors of a week at Bay Hill.
He has thrived after idle stretches before, winning that 2008 U.S. Open while injured after sitting out two months. He contended and finished fourth at the 2010 Masters after a forced leave of 21 weeks.
“If I feel good, I can actually make a pretty decent swing,” Woods said Sunday before heading off for treatment. “You saw it (Saturday). I actually can make some good swings and shoot a good score. But if I’m feeling like this, it’s a little tough.”
Why risk feeling like that at Augusta by playing at Bay Hill? Take a break and get better.
Tiger needs it. Golf needs it.