ORLANDO, Fla. — Raise the red flags. Cue the concern.
Here we go again with Tiger Woods, age 44, who announced Friday that he won’t play in The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass next week because he doesn’t believe his balky back is ready to take the strain of tournament play.
Woods, who was expected to play in this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, opted out at the 11th hour last Friday, saying that his back was not ready.
Woods has not played in a tournament since he finished last in the Genesis Invitational, an event his foundation hosts, last month at Riviera. He appeared to be moving around gingerly back then and conceded that his back was “stiff.”
He then opted not to play in the WGC-Mexico Championships the following week, saying he needed to rest his back and that preparing for the Masters was at the forefront of his mind.
That rest has turned into a month of no tournament play, and, with the Masters a month away, there are questions about how prepared Woods can be to defend his title at Augusta with such limited tournament play in the lead-up.
“Back just not ready,” Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN in a text Friday. “Not concerning long term, just not ready.”
How this cannot be considered a concern long-term? It’s difficult to believe anything that comes out of Steinberg’s mouth considering his past history of avoiding transparency.
Of course it’s a long-term concern. Woods is in his mid-40s and has had multiple surgeries on his back, the last of which was a spinal fusion procedure, which is considered a last resort.
So, now what?
Watch for the Valspar Championship. That’s the next event on the PGA Tour schedule, following The Players next week. And it’s a place where Woods has had success, finishing runner-up in 2018. If he doesn’t play Valspar, then he might play the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, where he tied for fifth last year.
“That’s the fun part of trying to figure this whole comeback: How much do I play, when do I play, do I listen to the body or do I fight through it?’’ Woods said at the Genesis. “There are some things I can push and some things I can’t.’’
Woods has played in two tournament this year — the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January (where he tied for ninth) and the Genesis in February. Last season, he played just 12 events.
But when he won the Zozo Championship in October in Japan for his 82nd PGA Tour victory, finished fourth at the Hero World Challenge in December and then went 3-0 at the Presidents Cup, it looked as if this could be a big year for him.
Now, it feels like it’s back to square one with him and his back.
Notah Begay, one of Woods’ close friends, said Wednesday on Golf Channel that “this is something that he’s going to battle with over the next few years.
“It’s just the ebbs and flows of dealing with the physical challenges in his back,’’ Begay said. “I mean, how many surgeries he’s had and just try to recover the mobility. More importantly, trying to get enough days in a row where he’s feeling good and getting some reps in. If you’re not able to put the practice in, you’re certainly not going to be able to show up at a place like TPC Sawgrass and have the requisite skills to go out and defend yourself on a golf course that exposes everybody.’’
Begay said he believes Woods is dealing with a “ripple effect” of a busy finish to 2019, when he flew directly from hosting the Hero World Challenge in December to Australia to serve as a player-captain for the U.S. Presidents Cup team.
“Everything that goes into playing a PGA Tour schedule was sort of pushed back a little bit,” Begay said. “Not to make excuses, but it’s hard once you get past the age of 40 and you have a bad back. Some days you just have some challenges getting into your normal routine.”
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