Tiger Woods' Make-or-Break Year, Broken

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Last year, Tiger Woods was back on top. He won five tournaments, reclaimed the number one ranking, and is now just three tournaments shy of the record for all-time PGA tour wins. For most of 2014, however, Tiger has battled back pain, withdrawing during the fourth round of the Honda Classic in early March and later pulling out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on account of his ailing back. Now, Woods is sidelined indefinitely — he said in his statement yesterday that he hopes to be competing again "sometime this summer" — and 2014 could prove to be a lost year for him, one that was critical to one of his life-long goals of besting Jack Nicklaus' record.

With 14 major titles to his credit, Woods is just four back of Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark. But the 38-year-old hasn't won a major since 2008, and this year looked to be his best chance to end the drought — and possibly his last chance to mount a sustained run at Nicklaus's record. That's because three of the four majors are being played on courses on which he has already won majors. In an interview with Men's Journal, Woods's former swing coach, Hank Haney, put it thusly: "This is a great year for him to win one or two majors, and if he does he'll be on his way to Jack's record." Asked if 2014 was a make-or-break year for Woods, Haney didn't hesitate: "Absolutely." But as this latest injury suggests, it could be that Woods was broken before his make-or-break year even began.

In the popular narrative, Woods's decline — a relative term, when you are talking about a guy who is still capable of winning five tournaments in a single season — began on that night in November 2009 when his wife chased him with a golf club from their suburban Orlando mansion; his personal life unraveled, and his game followed. It's a narrative that particularly appeals to those who were offended by Woods's serial philandering, as it is suggests that the golf gods punished him for his moral lapses. In truth, though, the personal issues diverted attention from a problem that was much more detrimental to his game: his body was giving out.

The 2008 US Open was the last major that Woods won, and it was arguably his most stirring victory. After an epic fourth round at the Torrey Pines course near San Diego, Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff to capture the Open. The win came just two months after Woods had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but it was clear from the start of the Open that the leg was still not right. Woods spent the weekend hobbling around the course, often grimacing in pain, which made his victory all the more electrifying. Only after the tournament did we learn that Woods, during his rehab, had suffered double stress fractures in his tibia and had been advised by a doctor not to play. A week after the Open, Woods underwent surgery to repair the ACL in the same knee that had been operated on just two months earlier.

In total, Woods has had four knee operations, has ruptured both an ACL and an Achilles, and has now had back surgery. Needless to say, that reads more like the medical history of a star-crossed NFL running back than a professional golfer. But then, Woods brought unprecedented athleticism to golf. The sheer physicality of his play — the strength and agility — was something the sport had never seen. It is glorious to watch, but the violence of his swing, and the amount of torque involved, put enormous strain on his knees and other body parts, and he has the scar tissue to prove it. Some observers believe that Woods's fitness regimen has left him vulnerable to injury: he has done a lot of weightlifting over the years (Haney says that Woods has become bulked up to the point that it is detrimental to his game), as well as lots of conditioning work, and it has been suggested that perhaps he overdid it. The bitter irony is that the same athleticism that helped carry him to 14 major titles may now have derailed his quest to overtake Nicklaus. 

In a statement, Woods reaffirmed his desire to surpass Nicklaus's milestone. Woods can take encouragement from the fact that Nicklaus was 38 when he won his 15th major (he claimed his 18th and final one at the 1986 Masters, when he was 46 years old). But Nicklaus wasn't nearly as banged up as Woods, and the competition wasn't as deep back then. Haney framed the enormity of the task facing Woods by referring to Woods's chief rival, Phil Mickelson. He noted that Mickelson has won five major titles and 42 PGA tour victories. That's not just a Hall of Fame career; it marks Mickelson as one of the game's all-time greats. If Woods is going to break Nicklaus's record, said Haney, he is "basically got to have Phil Mickelson's career after the age of 38. You've got to have another Hall of Fame career after the age of 38." That would be a monumental challenge for a healthy player; for one plagued by injuries, it would seem to be mission impossible.