Tiger Woods will be at the Masters, but not to play

To the surprise of no one who’s glanced at a golf telecast in the last five years, Tiger Woods has withdrawn from the 2017 Masters tournament. This is on one hand a shame, because every tournament instantly becomes more interesting with Woods in it, and on the other a blessing, because there’s no way on earth Woods was ready to play this tournament.

“Unfortunately, I won’t be competing in this year’s Masters,” Woods wrote on his website early Friday evening. “I did about everything I could to play, but my back rehabilitation didn’t allow me the time to get tournament ready. …

“I have no timetable for my return, but I will continue my diligent effort to recover, and want to get back out there as soon as possible.”

The statistics are stark and brutal. Woods didn’t play in any of the majors in 2016. He missed the cut in three of four in 2015. He’s played Sunday golf exactly twice in the last 13 majors (including the Masters) and counting. He hasn’t had a top-ten finish since the British Open in 2013.

Oh, and in case you weren’t depressed enough about the inexorable grind of time, here’s another sobering little stat for you: we’re getting in range of the point where the time since Woods’ last major win, at the U.S. Open in 2008, is equal to the time comprising all of Woods’ career majors. Woods won 14 of 46 majors in a span from 1997 to 2008; the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black will mark the 46th major since Woods’ victory at Torrey Pines.

Add all that up, throw in the fact that Woods now has more health updates than tournament rounds played, and you start to see the inevitable conclusion: Woods ought to hang it up, right? Call it a day, switch over to genial corporate shill, shuffle off to the inevitable ceremonial tee-shot role.

Tiger Woods, once dominant on the course, is barely a shadow of his former self. (Getty)
Tiger Woods, once dominant on the course, is barely a shadow of his former self. (Getty)

To which I reply: hell no.

Woods ought to stick around the world of golf until he’s good and ready to go. Who cares if he never makes another cut? Who cares if his Sunday red-and-blacks gather dust? Who cares if he needs to go driver, three-wood to equal Dustin Johnson off the tee? Who cares if he needs three putts to drain a 60-foot curler that Jordan Spieth can knock down in one? Who cares if he rolls into every tournament saying he expects to win, and then finishes Thursday a dozen strokes behind Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama? For all that he’s achieved, Woods has earned the right to go out on his own terms, whether that’s in 2017 or 2027.

Even if he’d hobbled off the green after that magnificent Torrey Pines playoff in 2008 and retired on the spot, Woods would still rank 1A to Jack Nicklaus’s #1 in golf history. Nothing Woods has done on or off the course has altered that, and nothing he could do from here on out would either. Those majors are up on the wall, inscribed in stone, and they’re never coming down.

The optimists will cling to gossamer-thin straws, like the fact that Woods, at 41, is still five years younger than Nicklaus was during that famous 1986 Masters. But the truth is that Woods is facing three foes that Nicklaus didn’t:

His ever-declining health. The parts of Woods’ body that haven’t undergone a knife or rehab are dwindling fast, and the parts that he’s repaired continue to crack under the strain of his monumental expectations and the weight of decades of exertion far beyond reasonable golf tolerances. When you hear reports that Woods collapses onto the green and can’t get up, or can’t even sit in a chair without pain, you’ve got to wonder if there’s any way to put the collapsed Jenga pile that is his spine back into any kind of reasonable form.

• His fellow golfers. All due respect to the Tom Watsons and Lee Trevinos of days gone by, but the combination of equipment, fitness and overall athleticism now present on Tour means that Woods is facing 20 to 40 players capable of winning a tournament every time he tees up, and at least twice that number are capable of beating whatever score Woods generally posts. That’s a hell of an order for even the best in the game at the top of their game, and Woods is nearly a decade removed from both.

His own legacy. No one in golf is trying to outdrive his own shadow the way Woods is. Most of the key players from Woods’ era are all but through; only Phil Mickelson still soldiers on with the ability to play late into Sundays. No other player competes with his own past the way Woods does, no other player has a highlight reel so long and so unfavorable to his present-day play at Augusta, Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, St. Andrews, Sawgrass … As long as he plays, Woods will be living in his own shadow.

Any one of those would be a daunting, career-halting opponent. All three together? Come on. You and I both know the odds of Woods ever being competitive again are phenomenally long. But the fact that he keeps talking about coming back, even if we all know he’s just going to fall down again … that’s so damn stubborn it verges on nobility.

So, once again we’re left wondering when we’ll see Tiger Woods play again. The U.S. Open? The British? His own pet Bahamas tournament? We might not even see him again until Augusta 2018. And if — when — he does tee it up then, the entire sports world will be watching. As we should.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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