Commentary

Woods finally decides not to play hurt

Updated: April 1, 2014, 9:43 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Tiger Woods is 38, but his knee, Achilles, elbow, tibia, neck and now back are going on 48, maybe older. Keep this up and Woods will be sponsored by Obamacare.

He isn't going to play in next week's Masters. In fact, Woods isn't exactly sure when he's going to play again. By his own admission, it won't be any time soon.

For the first time since, well, ever, Woods is acknowledging his age. He's acknowledging that his body has a finite number of golf swings left in it. He's acknowledging his golf mortality.

Woods was one of the first pro golfers to use the gym for something more than the sauna. He considered himself a jock, not just a guy who could hit a flop shot. You could bounce a quarter off his abs.

But now that he's on the near side of 40, certain body parts are taking a leave of absence. There were the stress fractures and the reconstructive knee surgery in 2008. There was the neck injury in 2010. The Achilles injury in 2011. The elbow injury in 2013. And back spasms in 2013 and 2014.

He is breaking down, which isn't the same thing as broken down. Even with the conga line of injuries, he won five tournaments last year and was named the PGA Tour's player of the year. So the guy knows how to rehab and recover.

This time Woods needed surgery to address a pinched nerve in his back. If you had seen him at the Barclays last year, or at Honda and Doral last month, you knew he was in pain. You knew he was fighting it too, just like he fought through a torn ACL in 2008 at Torrey Pines, when he won the U.S. Open -- his last major victory -- on one leg.

"It's just pain," said a dismissive Woods in 2008, according to the book authored by his former instructor, Hank Haney.

But this is different. Backs are different. More importantly, Woods is different.

Woods has made a concession to age and to medical realities. The Woods of six years ago might have stubbornly announced he was playing in the Masters, even if a vertebra were sticking out of his Sunday red shirt. Macho Woods would have duct-taped it to his spine and hobbled on.

But the 2014 version of Woods wants to be playing golf in 2024. He tried to rest and rehab the back during the last several months, and it didn't work. He withdrew at Honda and shot a 78 in the final round at Doral. He was a mess.

The back surgery was the mature thing to do. The smart thing to do. The post-Tiger 2008 thing to do.

Perhaps he didn't have a choice. Maybe it was either surgery or spending Masters week wondering when he'd have to WD. Woods has too much respect for that tournament and that place to hockey stick it around.

This would have been his 20th Masters. He first came to Augusta National as a 19-year-old amateur, and between then and now, Woods has won four green jackets and finished in the top five 11 times.

But now wasn't the time to force it. This way, depending on the length of his rehab, Woods might still play in the remaining three majors this year. Or two. Or one. Anything beats none.

Woods is acting his age. Macho out, maturity in. It's like he said a year ago during his pre-Masters news conference: "We have an opportunity to play basically 30 years solidly at a high level. Some of the guys have come out here at 20 and done well into their 50s. We have very expansive careers, and I feel like I'm basically right in the middle of mine."

The career is taking a medical timeout. Woods did the golf math and decided he can afford to miss a major. He's in Year 19 of his pro timeline. By his calculations, that gives him another 11 or so seasons of chasing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

If his body holds up -- and there's no guarantee of that, given his medical charts -- Woods will win again. He has been discounted more often than a Michael Bolton CD at Wal-Mart.

Yes, he is 38. Yes, you need a file cabinet to catalog his injuries. Yes, he hasn't won a major since 2008.

But it was the great Butch Harmon, also a former Woods coach, who said it best in a 2010 interview with Golf Digest: "If you ever want to get Tiger to do something, just tell him he can't do it. He's going to prove you wrong, and I mean quickly."

So tell Woods he's finished, that nobody, especially 38-year-olds with surgical scars, wins majors after back procedures. But do so carefully.

Tuesday's news wasn't the best thing that ever happened to Woods. But it wasn't the worst. Not even close.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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