Tiger Woods – out of the Masters – is facing his biggest rival yet

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

It's been 17 years – yes, 17 years – since 21-year-old Tiger Woods torched Augusta National at an unheard of 18-under par, besting Tom Kite by a record 12 strokes to win the Masters. It was the first of four green jackets, and 14 major championships, for Tiger.

From that moment the golf world has been desperately seeking a viable rival for Tiger, perhaps to beat him, perhaps to challenge him, perhaps just to make things interesting. So many were propped up with varying degrees of success and longevity, from Phil to Vijay to Ernie to Rory to even, um, Sergio.

None quite took, at least not the way Palmer challenged Hogan or Nicklaus challenged Palmer or Watson challenged Nicklaus and so on.

Now, however, nearly six years since Woods won the U.S. Open, then hobbled off Torrey Pines never to be quite the same again, the rival that is undoing him, and likely will continue to, gets clearer and clearer.

Time, injury and now, perhaps most concerning, recurring defeats to the most dreaded injury in the sport: a bad back.

Tiger announced Tuesday that he will skip this year's Masters after undergoing a microdiscectomy for a pinched back nerve. The surgery took place Monday in Park City, Utah, and could keep him out for as long as six months.

"After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done," Woods said in the statement.

"It also looks like I'll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy. … This is frustrating, but it's something my doctors advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health."

Never before has Tiger missed a trip to Augusta National, one of his preferred courses where even through struggles with his game or personal life he almost always finished well – 13 top-10 finishes, including 11 top fives.

And no matter the positive proclamation expressing a hopeful return after this "successful" procedure, the future is very much unknown. Perhaps this surgery solves it, but "perhaps" is the best anyone can legitimately say.

"There should be no long-lasting effects from the surgery, and it should not impact the longevity of his career," a statement on Woods' website proclaimed/projected.

[Related: Timeline of Tiger Woods' injuries]

The goal, Woods' website stated, is to "resume playing sometime this summer." Sure, that's the goal, but the back, for golfers, is different than any other injury.

Woods has been uncommonly open – well, as open as he gets – discussing his back injury. He's played terrible (by his standards) for most of the early part of the 2014 PGA Tour season. He noted that the problem with most of his other injuries through the years, be it knees, Achilles or wrists, was often the pain after a swing. He could still, conceivably hit it normally. He just had to brace himself for how much it was going to hurt after.

The back is something else, the essential muscle for every move in the game, and if that's failing, you simply can't play. Back injuries have plagued any number of golf careers, from Seve Ballesteros and Fred Couples all the way down to weekend duffers.

"I've had [a] knee injury, wrist injury, elbows, you name it," Woods said earlier this year. "Now I've had back, neck. It is what it is. It's the nature of repetitive sport. … You have repetitive injuries and most of my injuries are that. So that's the nature of why we lift, why we work out is to try to prevent a lot of these things and keep us healthy and keep us out here.

"As we get older, and I've learned it as I've aged," he continued, "I don't quite heal as fast as I used to. I just don't bounce back like I used to. That's just part of aging. There's times that, watching my kids run around, I wish I could do that again. They just bounce right up, bruises, and they are gone in a day. It's just not that way anymore."

For years it was, of course. Woods wasn't just indomitable; he was indestructible. He swung harder. He hit the ball farther. He was tireless, both physically and mentally, crushing opponents during the day even while, as we later found out, living a rather chaotic personal life at night.

He changed the entire dynamic of the sport, the way it looked and the way it acted. He was muscle bound, strutting around the course in an intimidating fashion. About a decade ago he noted that when he began on tour, he was one of the few golfers who aggressively lifted weights. Soon the gyms at the clubs hosting tournaments were jammed in the morning.

That was part of his allure. He took a country club game and made it seem athletic, not just skilled. His fist pumps and red-shirt gimmick and even his predatory nickname spoke of a bold new world.

The sport surged in popularity, even as – or perhaps because of – the bristling of the establishment.

Now, who knows? This isn't just an injury; this is the recurring rival of all rivals.

Woods announced no guaranteed timetable to return but noted he'd begin "intensive rehabilitation and soft-tissue treatment" within a week. He hopes to be chipping and putting within a month to achieve the stated goal of returning to competitive play by the summer.

That seemingly threatens his chances of entering the U.S. Open (played in early June, which is technically spring) and the British Open (played in July).

The ramifications are significant. Woods is still chasing golf's two most hollowed records, Sam Snead's total PGA Tour victories (82 to Tiger's 79) and Jack Nicklaus' all-time major championships (18 to Tiger's 14). Snead's record seems surmountable since this shouldn't be career ending. Jack's is another story. At 38, each missed major championship for Woods makes the likelihood of wining five more – a Hall-of-Fame career in itself for any golfer – less likely.

Jack won his final one at 46. He only had one surgery (on a knee in 1984) in his career. If Tiger can play competitively to 46, he would have 36 more major opportunities, a number that becomes 35 since he won't attempt this year's Masters and 33 if he's out through July.

At some point this is a numbers game.

"It's tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future," Woods said in the statement, addressing his legacy. "There are a couple [of] records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine."

This is also another stress test for the sport of golf. It's survived prolonged Tiger absences in the past few years (including skipping five majors), but he's never missed the Masters. It's the most significant event of the year because of it's timing in April when golf season nationally begins along the East Coast and Midwest.

Making matters potentially worse, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson dropped out of the Texas Open in late March with a pulled muscle and is home in San Diego rehabbing. Whether he heads to Augusta may not be known until Friday, but losing two iconic figures isn't a positive for the sport.

Within just one hour of Woods announcement Tuesday, prices on StubHub.com for opening-round badges were down a little over 10 percent, from $1,165.01 to $1,050.

That's reality, and perhaps a recurring one. Tiger is on the shelf, silenced again by the most unstoppable of foes: time, age and the kind of back injury that can scare the heck out of anyone who has ever swung golf club.

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