Tour Confidential: How much of a red flag is Tiger Woods’ latest setback?

March 9, 2020
Tiger Woods walks off a green during the final round of the Genesis Invitational last month.

Check in every week 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’ decision to skip the Players Championship, his Masters outlook, what Augusta National might do if the Coronavirus threat worsens, long-standing PGA Tour rules and more.

1. A month ago in this space, when we asked if there was any reason to sound alarm bells after Tiger Woods finished last among those who made the cut at Riviera, none of our panelists seemed concerned. Well, how ’bout now? Woods decided to skip both the Honda and API — which was maybe surprising but hardly shocking — but now he’s out of this week’s Players Championship as well. Woods tweeted that his back “is simply just not ready,” and his agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN that Woods’ back is “not concerning long term.” Are you buying it? Is Woods’ long-term health a legitimate concern? And what do you think this means for his pre-Masters schedule?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: The alarms are ringing. Both Woods and Steinberg used the same phrase, simply not ready. No stories of Tiger playing at Medalist, hitting balls in the backyard, playing with his son or his buds or President Donald J. Trump. To say his back is not ready is a narrow way of saying he’s not ready. Whatever ails him, it’s assuredly more than what he is saying. Same as it ever was.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Who knew back problems could be so complicated? My alarm level has moved from yellow (mild) to pale orange, but it’s not in the red yet. I’ve got to think this is all just a hyper-precautionary measure to preserve himself for the one that matters most. But backs are obviously delicate matters. Seems unlikely that we’ll see him before Augusta. As for long-term health, in that department, we’re all screwed.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@AlanShipnuck): This is no bueno but probably inevitable. Tiger pushed so hard for a year and half, to come back from the spinal fusion and ultimately climb the highest mountain imaginable at last year’s Masters. I think his body has been rebelling ever since. But his win in Japan last fall offers some hope, proving that Tiger doesn’t really need reps, like most normal humans. All that matters is he feels relatively spry come Masters week. He deserves that. So do we.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): What it tells me is that Tiger legitimately doesn’t know. Doesn’t know how his back will feel next week. Doesn’t know how it will react to a week of tournament stress. Think about it: if he knew he had no chance, he’d have announced he was out of the Players earlier and avoided scrutiny. If he knew it would be fine, he’d obviously be playing. Instead all we can assume is that he’s in limbo, and we as Tiger Observers will stay in limbo with him.

Rory's Sunday implosions are getting more alarming — the triple bogey at Riv, the doubles at Bay Hill. The No. 1 player in the world simply can't so consistently lose the plot like that when in contention.

2. Transitioning from one Masters favorite to two others, Brooks Koepka followed a missed cut at the Honda with a T47 at Bay Hill — which included a career-worst 81 on Saturday — and Rory McIlroy contended after 54 holes but fell apart on the front nine on Sunday, carding a 40 and shooting 76 in what was one of his latest Sunday struggles. If you had to rank Tiger, Rory and Brooks in order from most to least likely to win the Masters (win, not just contend), how would you do it?

Sens: Brooks, Tiger, Rory. Bay Hill was brutal this week. I’ll chalk Koepka’s blowup to an anomaly and the fact that he has a different gear for events other than majors. Tiger next because he’s Tiger, with the back as an asterisk. Rory third is no slight on Rory. No surprise if he wins, but I still place him last in this illustrious trio. He has acknowledged that Augusta is a wee bit in his head.

Shipnuck: Tiger, Brooks, Rory. Koepka will find it, and probably soon. Last year he finally showed he knows how to play Augusta National. Rory’s Sunday implosions are getting more alarming — the triple bogey at Riv, the doubles at Bay Hill. The No. 1 player in the world simply can’t so consistently lose the plot like that when in contention. Doesn’t bode well for Augusta National, which has always magnified Rory’s weaknesses.

Bamberger: Brooks, by a mile, then Rory, then Tiger. Brooks is the best big-event player in the game now and has been for three years. Back-to-back wins? It’s only happened when players are absolutely dominating. As for Rory, Sundays are only getting harder.

Dethier: This is crazy talk. Rory is in the middle of a wildly impressive run of consistency — T3-1-4-T3-T5-5-T5 in his last seven starts. He’s the most likely to win! Then Brooks, given his ridiculous major record balanced against his strange play. Tiger might be first if we knew he’d be healthy; as it is he has to be third.

3. Speaking of the Masters, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley released a statement last week regarding the rise of Coronavirus cases in the U.S., saying ANGC is monitoring the situation and consulting with experts, but at this time proceeding as planned with the Women’s Am; Drive, Chip and Putt; and the Masters. If things get worse, what’s the next step for the green jackets? Postpone the event, cancel it, conduct it without fans? What’s feasible and what isn’t?

Sens: If they can pipe in birdsong, why not roars? But this is one of the rare cases where the green jackets might have to, or at least should, defer to a higher authority. Let the public experts issue guidelines/recommendations for gatherings, and trust that Augusta will do the right thing and abide by that wisdom. The average age skews high among patrons, though, so even if the event proceeds as always, you’ve got to think a lot of folks will just tune in on TV.

Shipnuck: After reading various doomsday articles about COVID I’m now worried about every event on the schedule. If the U.S. ever starts widespread testing the number of confirmed cases is very likely to spike dramatically, leading to all manner of panic. Postponing would mean, at best, a fall Masters — it’s so hot in Augusta in the summer the club closes and the conditions aren’t right for tournament play. A Masters with no fans would be sad and weird and cheat the players out of the proper experience. We’re only a month out and given the dearth of Coronavirus testing this Masters may get played before there are widespread cancelations of public events. But the PGA and both Opens and the Olympics are all on shakier ground.

Bamberger: The Masters will likely do whatever the other Tour events do. If the true medical and crowd-control experts say golf tournaments are not, at all, high-risk environments for the the vast majority of the population, then the Masters will do what the PGA Tour does, which is play on, with a high-caution nod to the elderly and the infirm. A wise early boss of mine once said, Things are never as good and never as bad as they seem.

Dethier: I am having a hard time getting my head around the wide-ranging implications of the virus. Ultimately are we supposed to basically not congregate anywhere? Golf tournaments have the benefit of being held outdoors and on massive pieces of property, so it’s not exactly the NYC subway when it comes to contagion. But I’ll defer to the experts — they should, too.

4. Dustin Johnson became the first highly ranked player to say no thanks to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, citing the busy Tour schedule and his focus on the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Do you expect DJ’s choice to sit out will be the first of many dominoes to fall now that the floodgates are open, or will his decision be an outlier?

Sens: A lot depends on how the virus situation plays out. If Zika was enough to scare players away, imagine a pandemic that shows no sign of slowing. Still a ways off, though. And I don’t see DJ’s decision opening an immediate floodgate. This will be a wait-and-see.

Shipnuck: Zika was never really a concern to the players, it just became an easy excuse for the apathetic, as Rory acknowledged after-the-fact. DJ doesn’t move the needle either way. Those who want to play in the Games will do so and those who aren’t into it will come up with a myriad of excuses. But citing Coronavirus as an excuse not to play in Tokyo won’t make sense if it has already spread around the globe by then.

Sens: Not a major point, but I don’t buy that after-the-fact explanation. There was plenty of sincere sounding concern about Zika at the time, even if some of that was really just proxy for players worried about safety in Brazil in general. In both cases, the concerns were exaggerated, as they often are in coverage of Brazil. It makes sense that players would try to downplay them afterwards, as, in retrospect, it became clear that their worry was overblown.

Bamberger: This is not a response to the DJ position but a broader question: If you take yourself out of Olympic consideration, are you subject to different, lesser drug-testing? I will try to find out and report back. As for Johnson, I can see him really not wanting to deal with all the fuss that comes with going to an Olympics. But that addendum, that he wants to focus on the playoffs, doesn’t sound like a moment of deep candor. At all.

Dethier: Keen reporting instinct there, Michael. I don’t think he opens any floodgates but I will say that it’s a bummer to hear he, Koepka and others who yearn to be thought of as “athletes” not jump at the chance to be connected with the larger sporting world.

5. Eddie Pepperell was disqualified from the Qatar Masters for signing an incorrect scorecard after Thursday’s first round. Pepperell’s playing partner had the wrong score for Pepperell on two different holes, but Pepperell noticed it and corrected them. However, when correcting his score on the 16th he accidentally changed the score on the 17th, resulting in his DQ. “The rules are the rules and I 100% accept that, but I can’t help feeling that this particular way of disqualification is a fair distance away from common sense, and that’s also disappointing,” he said. Does Pepperell have a point? Should the rules make more room for common sense?

Sens: I’m pretty sure Mr. Bamberger will disagree, but I’m with Pepperell. Tournament results should be decided with the clubs, not a pencil. That said, lesson learned for Mr. P. When signing a card, pretend you’re DeChambeau pacing off a putt and scrutinize painstakingly from all angles.

Shipnuck: But a tournament like Qatar has few fans, and not an excess of TV cameras. How do we know what the leaderboard should be if the players are not doing an accurate accounting?

Bamberger: Well, I feel for Ed, but the fact is you just have to make sure that your card is correct. Period. The rule requiring a player to sign a correct card is the essence of common sense. Anything else makes the whole business more complicated.

Dethier: I wouldn’t mind a bit more of a grace period, allowing for edits. Related: Deep in the throes of a struggling Canadian Tour summer I signed for a 4 when I’d made a 3, so I think I recorded 79 instead of 78. Tough times.

6. This week’s Players Championship, the biggest event of 2020 thus far, has no Tiger but plenty of other juicy storylines. What plot are you most looking forward to seeing unfold at TPC Sawgrass?

Sens: There’s never been a repeat champion at Sawgrass. Paging Mr. McIlroy!

Shipnuck: Can Brooks find himself after knee problems and some shockingly bad play.

Bamberger: Patrick Reed’s reception as he walks up 18 on Sunday with a five-shot lead. This course is made for him.

Dethier: The Florida Swing has started off with a bang — these courses have played impossibly hard! Looks like we’re getting some warmer weather so it might get easier, but I hope not. The carnage has been a blast to watch.

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