- The Augusta Chronicle - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Since 1994, Augusta has never experienced a Masters Tournament without Tiger Woods.

This year will give a glimpse into the future.

“Sad to say I’m missing the Masters,” Woods tweeted April 1 in conjunction with a story on his Web site announcing a successful microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve that had hampered him since February. “Thanks to the fans for so many kind wishes.”

This was not an April Fools’ joke and Woods’ back troubles are no laughing matter. What started with a spasm that buckled him to his knees last August at The Barclays Championship had reemerged as a chronic issue when he was forced to withdraw in the middle of the final round at the Honda Classic on March 2.

He played through the pain a week later at Doral, but withdrew from Bay Hill in a desperate attempt to rehabilitate his back in time for the Masters.

Once it became apparent that a little extra rest wasn’t going to be enough and that repetitive motion of the golf swing could further damage his back, Woods went the surgical route hoping to fix it long term.

“After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done,” Woods said.

“I’d like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters,” he added. “It’s a week that’s very special to me. It also looks like I’ll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.”

As his peers begin arriving at Augusta National for the season’s first major, Woods will be doing intensive rehabilitation and soft-tissue treatment. His doctors speculated that Woods might be able to begin chipping and putting in three weeks with a goal of returning to competitive golf “sometime this summer.”

His announcement optimistically said “there should be no long-lasting effects from the surgery, and it should not impact the longevity of his career.”

Until this week, the Masters was the only major championship Woods had never missed. Since first playing as an amateur in 1995, he’d made 19 consecutive Augusta starts with four wins and nine other top-eight finishes. Since winning his last green jacket in 2005, Woods had finished worse than sixth only once in his last eight starts.

Woods skipped the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008 after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery immediately after his last major victory at the 2008 U.S. Open. He missed the U.S. Open and British Open in 2011 after injuring his Achilles tendon hitting an awkward shot from the pine straw underneath the Eisenhower Tree in that year’s Masters.

The back injury is the most serious threat to date to all of Woods’ career goals. Augusta had been at the forefront of his mind all season as he tries to reboot his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ records of six green jackets and 18 career major wins. Woods has remained stuck on four and 14 approaching six full years.

“We’re all just building toward that one week in April,” Woods said in February before his body started betraying him.

What was already classified as Woods’ career worst start to a season has devolved into a relative disaster in the last six weeks. Woods shot a Saturday 78 and missed the secondary cut at Torrey Pines – a place that’s been his personal ATM with eight victories in his pro career. The next week he finished a pedestrian 41st in Dubai.

When it looked like Woods might be turning the corner with a third-round 65 at PGA National, he withdrew 13 holes into the final round citing back spasms that caused him to start 5-over through his first six holes. He played the next week at Doral, shooting a tournament-low 66 in the third round to climb within two shots of the lead. But he played the final round in obvious discomfort shooting a birdie-free 78 on Sunday to fade to 25th.

He planned to come back at Bay Hill for a final Masters tune-up, but Woods called tournament host Arnold Palmer to withdraw.

“Unfortunately, my back spasms and the pain haven’t subsided,” Woods said then.

Whatever head start Woods once had in his quest to catch Nicklaus is gone. When the British Open heads to Hoylake this summer, Woods will be in the exact place Nicklaus was at age 38 on the major achievement timeline. With this year’s majors staged on courses where Woods has experienced success – Augusta, Pinehurst No. 2 (third- and second-place U.S. Open finishes), Hoylake (2006 Open victory) and Valhalla (2000 PGA victory) – he hoped a healthy shot at each could reignite his pursuit that’s grown stagnant since his last major victory in 2008.

“These four venues are four venues that I’ve played well at – three I’ve won at, and one I’m trending in the right way,” Woods said at the start of the year. “I’m looking forward to these major championships and this season in general.”

There’s no denying that Woods’ has squandered almost six years in what is considered a golfer’s prime and now has a body that raises questions about his future durability.

“I don’t have the rotational speed that I used to and that’s a fact of aging,” Woods said. “I am infinitely stronger than I ever used to be and more explosive in a lot of exercises that I do, but I just can’t rotate like I used to and that’s just the way it is.”

Assuming the surgery works out and his back doesn’t pose chronic career-threatening problems, Woods isn’t ruling himself out. Especially after a five-win campaign in 2013 that earned him an 11th PGA Tour Player of the Year.

“You’re not going to win (majors) every year,” Woods said in January. “I certainly look at my career, I haven’t won them all each and every year I competed as a pro. But the thing is, I’ve got to keep putting myself there, and if I can keep doing that, I’ll start clicking a few here and there. The key is to just keep putting myself there.

“You know, looking back from the beginning of my career to now, I know that I don’t have 20 years in my prime. I’m 38, I don’t see being 58 and being in my prime. Most guys don’t jump from the foul line at age 58, so it’s a little different but the outlook is still the same. (Ben) Hogan won multiples in his 40s, actually 38 and above. I feel like I’ve got a number of years ahead of me and I’m really looking forward to that.”

Based on his past performances, his expanding group of competitive peers continue to give Woods the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s going to be hard for him to achieve Jack’s record, but if anyone can do it, I’m sure he can find a way because we all know how good he is,” former U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell said.

Woods said he’ll be back.

“It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future,” he said. “There are a couple records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam (Snead) and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”

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