CHIBA, Japan — Earlier this month Tiger Woods announced an upcoming tome entitled “Back” that promises to offer rare insight and “a candid and intimate narrative of an outsize American life.”
In the press release Woods explained despite the glaring spotlight that shines on everything he touches, “there have been books and articles and TV shows about me, most filled with errors, speculative and wrong.”
The concept addresses two constants in Woods’ life, the unyielding weight of celebrity and his unwavering desire for privacy. Throughout Woods’ remarkable career the true picture has rarely been seen. His world has always been a 100-piece puzzle with just 70 pieces in the box, and in the absence of facts the void has often been filled with speculation and unfounded conjecture.
A primary example of this cat and mouse game unfolded on Monday at the Zozo Championship, where Woods is making his 2019-20 season debut. Before setting out for his made-for-TV skins match against Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama, Woods was asked about the procedure he had on his left knee in August.
His breezy answer provided much more than just a simple update.
“I was intending to actually get [knee surgery] done last year after the Hero World Challenge,” Woods explained. “Because I had played well in the playoffs and I won the Tour Championship, I figured I would keep rolling with it.”
Woods' victory at East Lake in 2018 was a pivotal moment in his most recent comeback and opened the door for even more progress in 2019. He likely wouldn’t have been ready to start his year at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he’s won seven times, if he’d had the surgery in December 2018, so he opted to postpone the procedure.
This wasn’t the first time Woods has placed competitive expediency above health concerns, with the 2008 U.S. Open being the seminal example of this, and his victory in April at Augusta National proved that the decision was beyond any second-guessing.
Woods’ disclosure also helps explain the dramatic turns of 2019. Following his Masters victory he managed just a single top-10 finish, he withdrew from the first playoff event and failed to advance to the Tour Championship.
Some had speculated that Woods’ drop off was an understandable swoon following his emotional triumph at Augusta National. Ending a decade of major frustration is a good enough reason to sit back and savor the moment, and few would have blamed Tiger for coasting in, but now it seems his struggles were the byproduct of a lingering injury and not an emotional hangover.
“It progressively got worse and got to where it was affecting even reading putts. You could see it towards the end of the year I wasn't quite getting down on my putts well,” Woods explained.
Much like his victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, it’s the type of after-the-fact insight that helps put things in perspective. Throughout this comeback Woods has been clear that as long as he can physically prepare without pain he didn’t see any limitations on his competitive outlook. The difference in post-Masters 2019 was that the mind was willing but the body was unable, as has happened so often with Woods.
The surgery in August was the fifth career knee procedure for Woods, and although he described the diagnoses as “some cartilage issues,” the compensations he made had taken a broader physical toll as evidenced by his withdrawal from The Northern Trust in August with an oblique strain.
“The way I was feeling towards the middle part of the year, it was going to be a tall order to be able to do it all. I started to struggle with it, it started affecting my back and the way I was walking and trying to play, trying to read putts,” he said.
Woods is hardly unique on this front. Injured players in any sport rarely enjoy sustained success, but with Tiger, the ebb and flow of his competitive fortunes are always intimately related to his health.
It wasn’t a lack of motivation or effort that led to his forgettable summer in 2019 it was a lack of health, but then failing to qualify for last season’s Tour Championship gave Woods an extra week to rehab. Much like his calendar last fall prompted Tiger to forego the knee procedure, his extended break this year has given him a path to a strong finish.
Woods arrived at this week’s first-year PGA Tour stop in Japan with a goal to prove to himself that he should be a pick for this year’s Presidents Cup.
He conceded on Monday that he’s been “consumed” by his captain’s duties and the four picks he will make following next week’s WGC-HSBC Champions. Whether he’s among those four picks likely depends on his performance at the Zozo Championship.
Woods doesn’t need to win the event but he will want to see for himself if his improved prognosis will lead to improved play.
“[The knee procedure] made me more hopeful that I could do all of the above, play this week, play [the Hero World Challenge] and play Australia,” he said. “I'm excited about having this end-of-the-year run where I'm feeling much more fit and I don't have the achiness that I've been dealing with for the last couple years.”
“Back,” which will be published sometime next year, promises to lift the veil on all the things Woods has been dealing with the last few years. But Monday’s revelations did give a brief glimpse into how complicated 2019 has been for Tiger.