DALY: Injuries, age are creeping up on Woods

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

It’s OK. We’re Washington, D.C. We’re used to Tiger Woods not showing up for our golf tournaments.

He never made it to Avenel when the Kemper Open was there — not once — and he even logged a DNP in 2008 at his own event, the AT&T National at Congressional, because of recent knee surgery. And last year, of course, the AT&T moved temporarily to the Philadelphia area, so we didn’t see him then, either. What’s one more Tiger no-show?

That’s the smart-alecky answer to Tuesday’s announcement, via Woods’ Twitter account, that his latest physical ills would keep him out of next week’s U.S. Open. But there really isn’t anything funny about Tiger sending his regrets, not this time. He’s obviously hurting in all kinds of ways, and golf is hurting along with him.

He’s still just 35, sure, but it’s looking more and more like we’ve seen the best of him, that the Tiger Woods of 1999 to 2002 — or even the Tiger Woods from 2005 to 2008 — isn’t coming back. In his place we have a guy whose body is breaking down, whose marriage — thanks to his own infidelities — has broken up, and whose reconstructed swing, still a work-in-progress, has given us only an occasional glimpse of the old, all-conquering Tiger.

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He’s 35, in other words, but it’s a high-mileage 35, a Robert Downey Jr. 35. And unlike Robert, Tiger may not have another act in him.

If you’ve been following his progress — or lack thereof — since he reinjured his left knee and tweaked his Achilles’ tendon at the Masters, you’ve no doubt been fearing the worst about his chances of teeing it up at Congressional next Thursday. He tried to play in the Players, but lasted only nine holes (and 42 mostly miserable swings) before packing it in. In the weeks since, there have been reports of him hobbling around in an immobilizing boot.

His tweets have been similarly discouraging.

April 29: “I got to go do a clinic now in which I can’t hit balls.”

May 16: “Bummed that my left leg has me on the sidelines, but I want, and expect, to be at the US Open.”

And then finally Tuesday: “Not playing in US Open. Very disappointed. Short-term frustration for long-term gain.”

That’s the best-case scenario, at least. It’s just as possible, though, that his frustration could extend into 2012 — and perhaps beyond — as he tries to restore his health and his game.

Let’s face it, there’s a lot going on with Woods right now. His father is gone. His wife is gone. His mystique is gone. Many of his sponsors are gone. Last month, he broke with IMG, the agency that had long represented him (though Mark Steinberg, who left the firm at the same time, continues to be his Man Friday.)

Tiger also has lost his No. 1 ranking, which will happen when you haven’t won a tournament in almost two years. At last glance, he was ranked 15th in the world, sandwiched between Nick Watney and K.J. Choi. Given the condition of his knee, Achilles’ and who knows what else, that ranking will get lower before it gets higher.

Naturally, the sport is suffering with its biggest name so adrift. Golf never was more visible, more cool, than when Woods was doing wondrous things like pulling off the Tiger Slam. And now? Well, TV ratings are down, interest is down and the game just seems diminished, back to where it was in the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman years. The two players atop the rankings, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, have yet to win a major championship. They’re very talented, don’t get me wrong, they’re just not Tiger Woods, not by 3-wood.

But then, Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods either — not now, maybe never again. That’s why word of his withdrawal from the Open isn’t quite as numbing as it might have been. In his current state, after all, he wouldn’t have been one of the favorites and might have been hard-pressed to make the cut. The Open, with its thin fairways, thick rough and NASCAR-fast greens, is no place for a wounded player who hasn’t even been able to practice.

Besides, the AT&T is returning to Congressional for at least three more years (2012-14), so we figure to see Woods up close again. If we’re lucky, it’ll be a Tiger we can recognize, not this imposter we see before us, this Tiger Lite.

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