OAKMONT, Pa. -- Jason Day and Tiger Woods trade text messages and speak often. One topic that doesn’t come up is when, or if, Woods will play golf again. Understandably, it’s a sensitive topic, though that doesn’t make Day any less curious.
The current world No. 1, like everybody else in golf, wants to see the former No. 1 back.
Is Tiger finished? Finished winning majors? Finished winning anywhere? Or is he just plain finished playing altogether because his body simply won’t allow him to?
“It depends if he wants to climb that mountain again,” Day said this week at Oakmont Country Club, where Woods is absent for a second straight major championship after announcing last fall that he had undergone a third back procedure and there was no timetable for his return. “He’s climbed it twice before and he knows how much hard work and want you have to put into it.
“I think he can come back but I’m not sure where his head is at. I don’t know how injured he is. I don’t know how his mental state is. But I think he’s doing the smart thing right now and taking time off. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the whole year off and gets his body being back to where it needs to be.”
Woods hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, hasn’t won anywhere since 2013 and hasn’t played competitively since last August at the Wyndham Championship, where he entered the weekend tied for the lead before finishing in a tie for 10th. By December, though, he was reflective if not resigned to his current state, saying that he’d had a “pretty good run” and that anything more would be “gravy.”
Was this the end?
More recently there have been signs of progress -- albeit mixed ones at best. In February, a video showed Woods hitting an easy 9-iron on a simulator. In April, he hit a couple of drives during the opening of his new course outside Houston.
Then last month during a media event for his upcoming Quicken Loans National at Congressional, he dumped three balls into the water from just over 100 yards. One former player who has won multiple times on the PGA Tour and lives in Palm Beach Gardens doesn’t see a return anytime soon.
“Buddies of mine at Medalist will tell me stories of when he comes out,” he said. “I never hear good stuff.”
Another current player who has won multiple times on tour took it a step further. “I think he’s finished,” he said. “He could come back and maybe win a couple of small events, but as far as winning a major, no, he just doesn’t have the game the way he used to. I think it’s too hard for him to come back with all he has gone through.”
Others remain cautiously optimistic. After all, golf, for a multitude of reasons, is better with (a healthy) Woods than without him.
“My wish is he can; for some of young bucks out here to witness that and for the state of the game,” said Zach Johnson. “But no one knows other than him, and he may not know.”
Added Brandt Snedeker: “He can come back and play like he did in 2013. I don’t think he’s lost the ability to hit the ball in the center of the clubface, but whether he can put in the practice and time I don’t know.
“I don’t think he can play golf the same way, he can’t overpower a course the way he used to. He’s going to have to think better than everybody else, have a better short game than everybody else and be mentally tough.”
But that Woods recently announced that he wouldn’t be able to play his own event next week at Congressional is another indicator that he likely isn’t close to being able to play tournament golf.
There’s also the fact that there is simply not much time left in the current season with just eight weeks before the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin.
“I’ve talked to two doctors about that surgery and both said for him to have that same surgery a second time there’s something bad going on,” William McGirt said. “There’s a lot more than is being told. I want to see him back, but health-wise who knows if he plays this year, next year or if he ever plays again.
“It’s pretty sad. We all want to see him back as soon as possible. I don’t want to see him as a ceremonial golfer and he doesn’t want to be a ceremonial golfer.”
Which brings up another question: What effect has all of this had on Woods mentally?
The fire hydrant in the wee hours after Thanksgiving in 2009. The public apology and eventual divorce from wife Elin Nordegren. The chipping yips in Phoenix. The myriad injuries and surgeries along the way.
“He’s got to want to play great again more than he’s afraid of embarrassing himself,” said Paul Azinger, who will serve as an analyst for this week’s U.S. Open on Fox. “I’m somewhere between he’ll never play again and he’ll win a major. It comes down to what’s in his head and how his body cooperates.”
At another stage in his career, Woods was faced with a failing body, but he showed an incredible will to persist. The result was his U.S. Open win on a broken leg eight years ago.
That victory was also in the eyes of some his Mount Everest. Whether Woods is capable of drawing that same level of resolve to try to get back to the top is no doubt part of the current equation, too.
“I always felt like Tiger was a guy who showed up in character, like an actor,” Azinger continued. “It redirected all the pressure. He played a part. But after what he accomplished in 2008, who you gonna be?”