By Sarah Turcotte
Tiger Woods will miss the 2014 Masters. In typically calculated Woods fashion, the four-time champion made his announcement on April Fools' Day -- probably to mess with us -- the morning after he underwent a microdiscectomy to repair a pinched nerve in his back. But this is no joke. Without Woods, this year's Masters will be a tradition unlike any other since 1995.
Any observer with a working knowledge of Tiger could tell you that he hasn't looked comfortable since last August. Even after pulling out during the final round at The Honda Classic last month, and blowing up for a 78 the following week at the WGC-Cadillac Classic, Woods remained optimistic. He certainly had me fooled. When the 38-year-old withdrew from The Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times, the situation appeared more ominous. And now we know: Woods' major ledger will stay at 14 for the foreseeable future -- still four shy of Jack Nicklaus' venerated mark. We also know that Woods' injury is worse than we thought.
In his statement, Woods said significant rehabilitation will be required before he can target a return date. He has kept the significant nature of his injury quiet, and suggests that he hopes to play this summer. Whether he'll be healthy for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in June or the British Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in July is one of many questions surrounding Woods that won't likely be answered any time soon. Back injuries are especially difficult for golfers to predict because the core is vital to the swing, and three months is on the most optimistic end of the scale. Woods' longest injury-related hiatus was two months following an ACL fix in 2008. He took a five-month self-imposed break in 2009-2010 after his disastrous marital infidelities surfaced. The guy is no stranger to adversity. But this time, he might just need to pull a Derrick Rose and sit out a year.
A longer break could be for the better. Even though any time without Woods can feel like an eternity for golf fans, a hobbled Tiger is far worse than no Tiger at all. He plays ugly and angry. As he gets older, he's less likely to bounce back, and stumbles when trying to play through injuries in the way he once did beautifully. With an ailing left knee in 2008, he won the U.S. Open. I love that Tiger.
I fear this Tiger could miss the cut or withdraw. This situation is dire. Though he hasn't rocked a green jacket since 2005, he has finished second twice, third once and fourth three times in the past eight years. Augusta is where Woods shines. Now that he has acquiesced to the point of missing his first Masters, we can be sure this ailment is much more serious than any he's had before.
As he recovers from surgery, Woods and his team -- and everyone else -- will try to pinpoint how he got here. In the wake of his recent struggles, Woods' notoriously rigorous strength training regimen has been criticized by former coach Hank Haney, 2008 Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger and not-so-shrinking PGA Tour violet Ian Poulter. Woods probably won't become a barre enthusiast overnight, but dozens of years of exercise and sports science research does suggest that bulk muscle can interfere with rotation in the swing and put undue pressure on the core. A training plan with an emphasis on flexibility and core work might be in order. And to get it right will take time.
Injuries happen in sports, so trying to place blame on one person or one factor is a little silly. But Woods and coach Sean Foley will have plenty of opportunity for video work to evaluate any potential swing tweaks that could alleviate stress on his now very fragile back. Golf Digest's Matthew Rudy spoke with veteran teacher Dr. Jim Suttie last week, and Suttie suggested that Wood's hip turn and leg movement at impact could be triggering some of his problems. Wherever any fault may lie, Woods will need to make significant adjustments to avoid aggravating his back going forward. The worst possible scenario would be for him to rush back for Pinehurst and disappoint.
One thing is clear in this nebulous scene: Just because Tiger is going to be out of the picture for a while, he certainly won't be out of the conversation. While we might be spared meaningless hours of CBS coverage of Woods playing poorly, in pain and with a salty attitude, we'll still have plenty of Tiger talk to sate our appetites. He hasn't won a major since 2008. With each missed start, Nicklaus' record -- which once seemed a foregone conclusion -- gets further and further away. He's not playing at Augusta, which is a huge letdown. For all of the over-dramatization wherever Woods is concerned, when he misses majors, we all lose.
Hopefully for golf fans, this latest calamity is temporary, and Woods will take the time to repair and recover to the point where we head into his next starts -- whether they're this summer or next -- focused on his majors chase, and not his major setbacks.
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Sarah Turcotte is a writer and producer living in New York. Her work has appeared in ESPN The Magazine, espn.com, Golf Digest, Fast Company, Bon Appetit and Details. She played collegiate golf at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her greatest golf achievement was not being in last place after the first day of her only LPGA Tour start. She tweets occasionally at @turcottesarah.