Tiger's back puts Masters in doubt

ORLANDO -- For the arc of his career, the talk has always been about the major championships. His preparing for them, his winning them or, more recently, his failures to secure them.

Tiger Woods had a career Grand Slam by the age of 25, once won all four majors in a row and got within four titles of the great Jack Nicklaus by the age of 32.

Now we're wondering if he can even play in the game's biggest championships.

The news Tuesday that Woods is skipping this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at least brings that question into play.

Woods has missed majors due to injury (four total), but never the Masters.

Even when emerging from his darkest time because of to his off-the-course scandal, Woods showed up at Augusta National in 2010, opened the tournament with a 68 in his first official round of the year and tied for fourth. Under the circumstances, it was one of his most amazing performances, even though he failed to secure a fifth green jacket.

Whether Woods is in Georgia three weeks from now is a question that can't be answered.

Sure, we can surmise that pulling out of the tournament he has won at Bay Hill eight times is the safe play. That he doesn't want to risk further discomfort and pain by trying to compete. That continued treatment for back spasms and working on his game in private will be the best approach to playing at Augusta.

If that's the case, it makes perfect sense.

Woods more or less admitted last month that being prepared for the Masters was the ultimate goal.

"Once the Florida Swing starts, we're all just building toward that one week in April," Woods said during a phone interview. "We're all about building toward that. Don't finish dead last. And if you win, great."

During that interview, Woods said he did little from a golf perspective in the offseason with an eye on preparing for a long year. Last year, he had back problems that plagued him toward the end of the FedEx Cup playoffs. And if you sized up the situation, it made sense that he would, at age 38, be careful, and gradually work his way toward Augusta.

Although his game was way off, there appeared to be no physical issues in his first two starts of the year, at Torrey Pines and Dubai. And through three days at the Honda Classic, he seemed to be gaining at least a hint of momentum, a third-round 65 his best of the year.

Then the back problems struck on the driving range the next day, causing Woods to withdraw after 13 holes. Some questioned whether walking off was legitimately due to injury, a hasty and unfair conclusion based on Tuesday's news.

Although he shot 66 during the third round a week later at Doral, he did so after not hitting a practice shot leading up to the tournament. At times, he walked carefully, slowly moving to pick his ball out of the cup. Woods acknowledged that his back was sore, but by Sunday it was much more than that.

At one point during a final-round 78, Hunter Mahan's caddie, John Wood, grabbed the ball out of the cup for Woods. The world's No. 1-ranked player looked uncomfortable putting. He shot 78, his worst final-round score as a pro.

And after nearly 10 days, presumably of rest and rehab, Woods is a no-go on a course he could play blindfolded -- but not with a bad back.

Woods referred to it again as back spasms, but it is fair to wonder if it is something more. Could those back spasms be a symptom of something worse? Woods is not saying, and his agent, Mark Steinberg, has not been specific when asked about it.

At Doral, when asked simply if he had an MRI, Woods didn't answer directly, simply saying he went through the "protocols," in dealing with the issue.

This should come as no surprise. Woods has rarely been forthcoming about his injuries, and he's not going to give us a day-by-day, minute-by-minute account of what he is enduring now.

But it is at least somewhat alarming that after an offseason meant to take the strain off his back, Woods is dealing with the issue again now and it's serious enough to keep him out of a tournament he has dominated.

There will be conjecture about whether Woods adds another tournament in the next two weeks leading up to the Masters, but at this point that matters very little. Sure, Woods has played just four times this year and needs the competitive arena to hone his game.

Far more important, however, is being able to practice. Feeling well enough to stand over the ball on the putting greens, getting comfortable hitting all manner of chip shots and pitch shots from the rough, pounding the number of balls on the range necessary to get his swing in sync.

Yes, Woods won a U.S. Open on one leg with virtually no practice. But this is much different.

"A bad back is something that is no joke," Woods said the day before the Doral tournament began.

Two weeks later, that remains painfully obvious.