Tour Confidential: Is Tiger Woods’s latest injury cause for concern?

March 11, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Tiger Woods’s neck injury, Rory McIlroy’s 2019, the Players Championship favorites, the passing of a legendary golf writer and more.

1. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck strain on Monday, but said he’s hopeful to remain in the field for this week’s Players Championship (he has a press conference scheduled for Tuesday). Tiger’s never been a bastion of truth when it comes to discussing his injuries, so it’s hard to know the severity of his latest setback. But does the neck tweak sound like cause for concern, and how likely is to diminish his prospects at the Masters and beyond?

Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak): If he truly was able to compete and half-contend in Mexico, then I’m not really that worried. Also, be sure to take new mandatory-opinion-giver Paul Azinger’s words with a grain of salt.

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): Tiger’s history of truthiness with injuries definitely clouds the picture, but there’s also the fact that the consequences of injuries are hard to predict. Whatever he says in the press conference, it won’t dictate the future. My own forecast is that this will be a minor glitch that won’t dampen his chances at Augusta. But if you think Azinger’s opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, take mine with half a grain of that same seasoning.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): The mere fact that he did withdraw from Bay Hill bodes well for his future. In the past, Tiger always thought he could tough it out, play through any injury (winning a U.S. Open on a broken leg will have that effect), and compete at the highest level. For the longest time, he was right. He didn’t want the media or other players to know of any injury he may have, lest the cloak of invincibility be even slightly removed. I think, now, he is looking forward. Would a ninth victory at Bay Hill have any impact on his list of lifetime achievements? Probably not. Would a fifth Masters? Yes, and he is going to make darn sure he’s as healthy as possible for that week.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Anything with the neck is serious. He already can’t make the driver swing he really wants to make, because of his fused back. His iron play last year was spectacular, so free-moving. You can’t make those swings if your neck is not warm and right. Weather forecast is good — warm — so that’s good. He’s smart to be cautious, and I don’t think for a minute we know the half of it, or will.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): We don’t know, and he probably doesn’t either – but this does feel like caution over anything else, and part of a bigger-picture approach. Playing at Riviera in all that cold may have exacerbated things – though it’s going to be Florida-cold in Jacksonville this week…

Tiger Woods last played the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Tiger Woods last played the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Getty Images

2. Rory McIlroy finished in the top six in his fifth straight event on Sunday, but it was also the seventh time in the last 12 months he’s been in the final group and hasn’t won. What’s most prevented McIlroy from picking up his 15th career PGA Tour title this year?

Zak: It’s the little places where he could be cutthroat and SHOULD pick up strokes – i.e. his wedges and holes like the 6th Sunday. He’s 260 out for his second on the par 5. One shot back. Flares his iron about 40 yards short and right. Makes par where a cutthroat version of, say, Tiger would make birdie.

Sens: Being 260 out on a par-5 was definitely a missed opportunity. But when you’re trying to get back over the hump, the really crucial distance is between your ears.

Wood: Simply capitalizing on his almost superhuman driving of the golf ball, but he knows it. All these close calls may be making him angry, which is probably a good thing for him. Put a chip on the shoulder of someone with that much talent and stand back.

Bamberger: Golf is hard? And on hard courses, like Bay Hill, harder yet? The line between exceptional (Saturday) and mediocre (Sunday) is razor-thin. I’ll always be rooting for him and believing in him. He’s a megatalent. We’ve been spoiled by Woods, forever.

Dethier: It generally hasn’t been the driving, it’s been a combination of everything else. Gawd, he drives it well. But the putter and the wedges tend to trade off as agents of letdown – still, it’s more noteworthy that he has put himself there than that he has come up short.

3. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sent a lengthy memo to players last week urging them to “use your voice constructively” when it comes to the new rules, which have come under fire since they were instated Jan. 1. Necessary move by Monahan? And will his call for temperance work?

Zak: On the whole, yeah, Tour pros had been really pouty. Who else can tell them to stop pouting than the commish? Well played, Monahan.

Sens: As imperfect as the new rules have been, and as trendy as it is to trash the USGA, the players’ bellyaching has been tiresome. A reasonable move by Monahan. I doubt it will end all criticism, but maybe the criticism will take on a more constructive tone.

Wood: Agree. Commissioner Monahan is so approachable and likable, and if he asks for temperance when discussing the rules, I think guys will listen. I agree with Josh, there will still be criticism, but it will be more than the “This is stupid” kind of critique.

Bamberger: Very smart move. Sometimes, the way to show the players you have their backs is by taking a step that seems counter-intuitive. The PGA Tour falls apart without strict adherence to, and acceptance of, the rules. There are some serious problems in alphabetland, but you need a ruling body that rules with authority. The USGA is not strong right now – now is the time to help it, not step on it.

Dethier: I talked to Justin Thomas a couple of weeks ago at the Honda and his blanket criticism of “pretty much all of them” is what Monahan is talking about. Well-reasoned criticisms are one thing, but the wide-ranging USGA-is-dumb isn’t particularly productive. There was bound to be a transition period; we may forget about most of this by year’s end.

4. The Players will make its debut this coming week in its new (well, old) spot on the Tour calendar. What impact will cooler conditions have on the event? And who’s your pick to win?

Zak: It’ll play tougher, which is a good thing. Gimme Kevin Kisner FTW.

Wood: Having been out here long enough to remember The Players in March, the wind direction will have the biggest impact on the tournament. In May, typically we would get somewhat of a southerly wind, somewhere between the southwest and the southeast. Obviously all the holes will be affected, but none more than 17 and 18. Seventeen in recent years has been a litany of gap wedges to 9-irons, and on 18 quite a few players had the option of hitting a long iron off the tee and still get a 7- or 8-iron. Now, 17 will play much more difficult, with the wind moving left to right and coming at you. Judging a crosswind correctly is immeasurably more difficult than judging a downwind. All of a sudden you are going from just blasting a gap wedge to maybe flighting an 8-iron and hitting at the right time for the wind you’ve chosen. And 18 you’ll now see a lot more 3-woods and drivers off the tee and more long irons into that green. Finishing will be a beast. I’ll take Kuchar by a hair.

Bamberger: I don’t know why anybody else would even bother showing up, unless they like second-place money. Kuchar, of course!

Sens: I’ll defer to our man inside the ropes on this one, as he knows the course better than anyone here. As for who wins: Rickie. A past winner of the event who has been in good form.

Dethier: I played a round at Sawgrass nine years ago, Sens, so I take umbrage to that. But this year’s iteration of the Players will demand precise driving in a wide variety of conditions – nobody has been steadier than Justin Thomas, who showed plenty at Riviera under similar challenges. He should be the favorite.

His writing was honest, and very often, funny. Both rare commodities.

5. Legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins passed away on Thursday at age 89. Jenkins did many things well but what most set him apart from his fellow scribes?

Zak: He was much bigger than his access, but has any other scribe been closer to the best players of all time? You actually knew what the game’s elite thought and did because, well, Jenkins was right there next to them.

Sens: In those long-gone days of sportswriting, access often came with a kind of coziness that wasn’t good for the final product. With Jenkins, though, you didn’t get the sense that he was compromised or pulling punches. His writing was honest, and very often, funny. Both rare commodities.

Wood: Dead Solid Perfect.

Bamberger: Truly, he had gifts. I’m sure he worked hard, but he had the gift of ear and nonchalance. It was all important, but not that important.

Dethier: As Bamberger alludes: Perspective.

6. Speaking of golf journalism, the Palm Beach Post was heavily criticized for the “No-Name Champion” headline it ran after Keith Mitchell won the Honda Classic a week ago. The sports editor later apologized, but we in the biz know well that mistakes can happen. What’s one journalistic moment you’d like to have back?

Zak: Having sent two emails, I didn’t make that one extra phone call to Steven Bowditch’s agent. He of course knew nothing of that and clapped back to my straightforward article with a jazzy headline. Headlines, man. The best and the worst!

Sens: Predicting that Tiger Woods was done.

Bamberger: I can give you whole years.

Dethier: A couple weeks into this job I was manning the desk on a Saturday and read too far into some ambiguously worded tweets. My interpretation was that a mid-level Tour pro had suddenly died. Luckily, we never got close to publishing anything – but it took a few extremely awkward phone calls to get to that truth. I’ve been more reluctant to kill off subjects since then.