Passing Jack is no gimme for Tiger

Tiger Woods is driven off the course after a neck injury on Sunday.
(Chris O'Meara/AP Photo)

Before the fire hydrant, Rachel Uchitel and “huge, quickly,” 2010 was considered a critical year in Tiger Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships.

This year offered a lineup of Tiger favorable courses – Augusta National (Masters), Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (British Open). Observers figured it was set up for him to win one, two, maybe even three majors to add to his current total of 14. By the end of 2010, passing Nicklaus would be a foregone conclusion.

Then came the scandal and now, on Sunday, came this: Woods withdrawing from a tournament for just the second time in his career, walking off the seventh hole of The Players Championship complaining of neck pain.

“I might have a bulging disk,” Woods said. “I’ve been playing through it. I can’t play through it anymore.”

Suddenly, just like that, everything is up in the air with Tiger, and it’s not the tabloids that are causing the biggest pain in his neck. Woods, 34, said he might need an MRI. He may offer more details Monday.

Right now no one knows anything.

Except that this, entering perhaps the most important stretch in the pursuit of the record he’s obsessed with, Tiger Woods’ future has never looked so uncertain. He may roar back and win a couple majors en route to what still seems like his inevitable passing of Nicklaus. Then again, he may be dealing with recurring health issues to compound his personal troubles. If the neck affects him in June’s U.S. Open and July’s British Open, well, Nicklaus’ record gets that much tougher to reach.

“They asked me if Tiger would not play this year, what did I think about my record,” Nicklaus said last month at the Masters. “I said I think it would be a lot more difficult because three of the golf courses we are playing are courses he likes very much. Obviously Augusta and Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, he’s done pretty well on.

“If he did not play those would it be more difficult? Yeah, it would be more difficult. Could he possibly do it? Yes. But it would be more difficult.”

Nicklaus was speaking hypothetically, since Woods had announced his return to golf after two stints as an in-patient at therapy clinics.

If the scandal wasn’t going to stop him, what could? Well, how about his third injury in the last two years? He missed the second half of 2008 rehabbing from his fourth knee surgery after he gamely hobbled around Torrey Pines and won the U.S. Open. He revealed last month that he tore his right Achilles in 2009.

Now here comes the neck.

“I don’t know [what caused it],” Woods said. “I know playing doesn’t help it. I’m having a hard time with the pain. There’s tingling down [the right arm to] my fingers.”

Woods has never been very forthcoming with any information, and quite understandably, injuries have been even more secretive. His swing coach, Hank Haney, told reporters Sunday that he didn’t even know about the neck. What Tiger described is most likely a nerve issue. Most troubling is that it doesn’t hurt until he goes into his backswing.

“Setting up over the ball is fine, but once I start making the motion, it’s downhill from there,” he said. “Backswing, downswing, follow-through.”

Pain, particularly in his backswing, has harmed Tiger Woods' game this season.
(Getty Images)

Back and neck injuries have always raised concern with athletes, as sometimes they linger for years. Woods has always swung with speed, torque and a sheer violence that few golfers have equaled. The wear and tear of that has been used to explain his delicate knee, which absorbs much of the pressure. It may affect the neck, too.

Then again, Woods also said he dealt with neck pain following that car accident last November. Perhaps this stems from that.

For Woods, his return has been a roller coaster. He finished fourth at the Masters – a tremendous performance considering the circumstances, even though he initially declared it a failure. Then he missed the cut last week in Charlotte. Now this.

His wife, according to paparazzi photos, took the kids to Sweden. He’s repeatedly complained about tabloid helicopters bothering his practice. This weekend a Tiger heckler was Tasered while being thrown off the grounds. An airplane flew over head advertising for a website ( where you can buy golf balls with the pictures of his various mistresses on them.

Oh, and Phil Mickelson is on the verge of taking his world’s No. 1 ranking.

“Say goodbye to No. 1, Tiger,” an 8-year-old boy yelled to Woods on Saturday, according to “Kiss it goodbye.”

“Be polite,” said Mickelson, who overheard it while signing autographs.

All that and he’s hurt, too? All while two of his most winnable majors loom?

Here’s the good news for Tiger: He says his neck bothered him in Augusta and he finished fourth. As bad as the pain was this weekend, when he dropped out he was still a respectable 2-under for the tournament. Imagine if he gets healthy.

Based on his play at Torrey Pines, we know Woods can handle pain. The question is for how long, and can he afford to miss any more significant time away from the game, especially now?

Tiger hasn’t won a major in two years. He hasn’t finished his last two tournaments. He’s dealing with another injury to another part of his body. And his personal life is a mess.

Meanwhile, Nicklaus sits in the clubhouse at 18 and if Tiger can’t get on track in 2010 and win a major, the end result is the same as if he didn’t play at all. Woods needs five majors for the record. Five is a great career for most – only 18 golfers have won that many. He’s going to try it after the age of 34 while overcoming a surgically repaired knee, neck pain and heckling 8-year-olds.

For years most golf fans envisioned Tiger breezing past Nicklaus, maybe even by now. There was a time when the kid was invincible and indomitable. The record was never in doubt. It still seems unfathomable that he won’t break it. Then again, things keep getting worse.

“I think this year will have an awful lot to do with [breaking the record],” Nicklaus said in March. “And I said if he didn’t play this year, he will have a hard time. But he is going to play this year.”

Well, perhaps.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, May 9, 2010