Beat-up Tiger Woods faces make-or-break year

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Watching Tiger Woods withdraw from the Honda Classic with back spasms mid-round this past Sunday was painful, especially for those waiting to see if this would be the year that Woods would resume his assault on Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 victories in the major championships.

At 38-years old the clock is ticking louder for Woods, who hasn’t won a major championship in five years. It’s a drought that leaves many wondering if Woods will get any closer to Nicklaus’ mark.

But three days after failing to finish the Honda Classic, Woods showed up at the WGC Cadillac Classic at Doral in Miami, saying he was ready to tackle the re-designed Blue Monster. He teed off for the start of the tournament on Thursday. Here’s hoping he makes it through Sunday without incident.

''It's been a long couple days of just treatments nonstop, trying to get everything calmed down,'' Woods said at a press conference in Miami on Wednesday. ''First of all, get all the inflammation out and from there, getting the firing sequence right again, getting everything firing in the proper sequence. And once we did that (Wednesday), feels good.''

Once upon a time it was amazing and exciting watching Woods roar through the tour from 1997-2008. His shot making was inspired. His putting was sublime. He was the complete package of talent and intimidation on the golf course. Now you watch Woods with your fingers crossed – hoping he wins. But more importantly hoping he doesn’t get hurt.

“I do think that because of the four knee surgeries, Achilles injuries, elbow injuries, back injuries, it’s getting more and more difficult for him,’’ said Damon Hack, co-host of “The Morning Drive’’ on the Golf Channel.

“He’s withdrawn from four tournaments with injuries since 2010. I think he’s an old 38. I think he’ll continue to battle injuries. He’ll have times when he can’t win tournaments that he’s been winning in the past.’’

If there is any injury that could stand in the way of Woods making that assault on Nicklaus’ historic record, it is a back injury.

Woods was able to win the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines even though he had torn ligaments in his knee and two stress fractures. He said that was because the pain didn’t hit him until after his shot had left the club. At the Honda Classic his movements were so restricted that he couldn’t rotate his body and that affected his swing and how he struck the ball.

''A bad back is something that is no joke,'' he said. ''With the back, it's a totally different deal. There are certain movements you just can't do. That's one of the things I've started to learn about this type of injury. It's very different.''

As a concession to age and those lurking injuries, Woods curtailed his 2014 schedule. He isn’t practicing nearly as much as he had early on in his career.

“He can’t nearly hit the number of balls that he used to,’’ Hack said. “His body won’t allow him to hit the ball for seven or eight hours like he used to. Can his body allow him to get in the same amount of practice at 38 as he did when he was 28? Not at all.’’

It seems he was setting up for a special year, because he was facing an appetizing slate of major championship sites this year. He already has won majors at Augusta, Royal Liverpool (British Open) and Valhalla (PGA Championship). The U.S. Open is at Pinehurst No. 2, were Woods was third in 1999 and runner-up in 2005. And he was entering this year as No. 1 in the world. He won five times last year against some of the strongest fields. He won the Vardon Trophy for the ninth time, the PGA Tour money title for the 10th time and was voted PGA Tour player of the year for the 11th time.

“If he doesn’t win a major this year the heat on him will be like it has never been,’’ Hack said. “This is the year that he has to win a major to break Jack’s record. If he doesn’t get it done at age 38, he might not do it. Every year that he doesn’t win a major, the heat gets turned up.’’

Next year the conversation will change. It will go from hopeful to something darker. Something that even the laser focused Woods will have a tough time ignoring.

“The longer he goes without winning a major championship the more the spotlight will fall on his fall from grace,’’ Hack said. “The line of demarcation is going to get darker and darker and deeper and deeper in the mind of the media. The metric changed after the fall from grace and the injuries and trying to build himself up.

“That’s the danger of not winning this year when everything is going right there for him in the set up. How much of what happened in 2009 is still lingering today? You almost won’t be able not to talk about it. From 1997-2008 he won 14 major championships. From 2009 to 2014 he won’t have won any.’’

Hack was at the press conference in Miami on Wednesday and he gauged Woods’ mood as being very upbeat considering he was coming to Doral after having to withdraw from the Honda Classic.

“I was surprised how positive he was. His spirits were high,’’ Hack said. “I almost got the idea that he knows something that the rest of us don’t know. It’s odd because statistically speaking this is the worst start of his career.’’

Hack said Woods was relating his own situation with ageing to that of Michael Jordan towards the end of his career.

“He said Michael couldn’t get up very high to dunk the way he used to so he developed a fade away jumper. Jordan was still winning championships,’’ Hack said. “Jordan never betrayed weakness and Tiger’s never going to betray weakness either. He still believes he’s better than these guys and that’s he’s not that far away from putting it all together.’’

The question is will his body be healthy enough to make a run when he does put it all together.

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