John Huggan: Tiger backed into a corner

Concern over Woods’ physical ailments is deflecting attention from his inability to win this season

Tiger Woods struggled at the World Golf Championship at Doral and pulled out of this weeks Arnold Palmer Invitational, citing a bad back, making him an unlikely contender at the Masters. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty

SO, NOT for the first time, Tiger Woods is suffering from a debilitating physical condition. Only a few days ago, spasms in his lumbar region caused the world’s top-ranked player to withdraw from the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times.

As is invariably the case on these increasingly frequent occasions, the specifics of Woods’ injury remain mysterious. A notoriously secretive soul, the 38-year-old Californian has forever been loath to disclose detail when it comes to anything that might smack of weakness on his part. Heaven forbid he might cede the aura of superiority on which he has long thrived.

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Anyway, whatever the extent of this latest strain on a body with many miles on the clock, we are yet again left to wonder exactly what is going on. Many questions remain unanswered, not least the level of performance we can expect from the 14-time major champion going forward.

There are clues though. Intelligent guesses can be made. While Woods is, in so many ways, a unique individual, his golfing DNA remains that of a mere mortal. He is prone to the same mistakes as the rest of us, only less often and not quite so destructively.

Let’s start with Woods’ abject play this year. In American parlance, he has “stunk up the joint” to an extent that overhauling Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Grand Slam titles seems increasingly unlikely. Publicly, the explanation for such ineptitude is Tiger’s back, but is it that simple? Might this be about more than just a temporary inability to properly swing the club?

A close examination of Woods’ recent play reveals a man clearly not spending enough time on practice. His steep decline reflects a basic lack of preparation. For example, hitting just over half of the fairways and finding less than 60 per cent of greens in regulation is far from a formula for success.

But here’s the thing. Is Woods not practising because he can’t? Or is he simply not motivated enough? Or is it a bit of both? Anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate an increasing indifference to the discipline of what Ben Hogan called “digging it out of the dirt”, rather than a sudden deterioration in physical skill.

After his own tournament last December, Woods “shut it down” for more than a month. In his next event in Dubai at the end of January he played poorly. Despite an obvious and immediate need to work on his game, Woods reportedly did not do so until the week of the World Match Play (an event he skipped). Then he went to the Honda Classic and failed to finish, citing back spasms. Then, only days later, he appeared at Doral in Florida for the second World Golf Championship of the year. There he again played horribly, frequently indulging in bouts of dramatic wincing after particularly poor shots.

With only 18 days remaining before the Masters – an event Woods last won in 2005 – the bigger question is not “can he claim a fifth green jacket?” but “will he be ready to play when he drives up Magnolia Lane?” The answer, based on all available evidence, is “almost certainly not”.

So it is that the time has come to question the level of Woods’ previously peerless desire to succeed. Which is not necessarily a criticism. If he is suffering from a dilution of motivation, it is more than understandable. After so much success, he would be less than human were he not to rebel at least mildly against yet another tedious trip to the range.

On the other hand, Woods surely owns a unique incentive in his quest to surpass Nicklaus’s otherwise untouchable record in golf’s four most important events. If Tiger is destined to come up short, it is difficult to imagine another serious challenger coming along any time soon.

Still, we should perhaps not be surprised by any feeling of boredom in a man who has played golf better than anyone ever has. Even Nicklaus didn’t win majors by the vast margins Woods recorded around the turn of the century. But that was then. And his decline from such an awesome peak has proceeded inexorably.

It all started as far back as 2007, when Woods was first beginning to feel real pain in his left knee. A year later, that ache was worse, even if he miraculously won the US Open on what amounted to one leg. Following surgery, the second half of 2008 and the early part of the following season were write-offs. At the end of 2009 came the infamous scandal that, amongst other things, ended the Woods marriage. And since then it has been one injury after another.

Even if one gives Woods the benefit of every doubt, the end result is he has missed an awful lot of golf. Which all adds up to him not playing and practising enough. Yet still he wants everyone to think his desire is as strong as ever and that his problems are all physical. Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to refute such an assertion. Only he knows the real answer.

So where are we? Right now, Woods is a shadow of his former self. And, according to sources close to the PGA Tour, something of a laughing stock amongst his fellow professionals. Many are reportedly more than a little amused by Tiger’s tendency to grab his back in the immediate aftermath of a wayward shot, yet remain relatively unperturbed when his ball ends up in a favourable spot.

Further down that same cynical path sit those who can only smile at Woods’ long-established attempts to guide the media away from his much-changed swing and on to – at least for now – his ailing back. His quotes (such as they are) nearly all concern his physical state rather than his inability to win golf tournaments. Yes folks, he really can be that calculating. Look at how few stories focus on how poorly he is playing. It’s all about his injury, which in turn creates a built-in excuse for at least the rest of this year.

The dirty little secret, however, is that deterioration is all too obvious in a game that once awed its competition into almost instant capitulation. For example, with the exception of 2012, Woods’ average driving distance has declined each year over the last decade. So has his driving accuracy. Shorter and more crooked off the tee, Woods’ formula for winning relies unhealthily on the making of many putts. The formerly yawning gap between him and the rest of the field is largely gone.

Hitting an almost constant left-to-right “cut” has made Woods’ game more one-dimensional than ever, a fact not lost on his fellow players. In any kind of left-to-right wind he is a safe bet to miss his target. Thus, young pros are far from intimidated by his presence on leader boards, his ever-more conservative style of play only adding to that relative lack of respect. As does his inability to consistently hole out with his erstwhile assurance.

Mix all of the above together and Woods will arrive in Augusta next month as an at-best unlikely contender for that 15th major victory. Changed days indeed.