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When it was reported on Twitter yesterday that Tiger Woods would undergo back surgery and miss the Masters at Augusta National next week, I thought it was a very effective April Fools joke.
By the time Tiger Woods announced late morning that he had indeed undergone surgery, it had become obvious that this was no joke. Painfully obvious not only to the Tiger Woods camp but also to those whose career is tied directly to TV ratings.
Tiger draws even the most casual of golf fans to TV on the weekends. You may not love him, but you love to watch him. If he is wearing red and black on Sunday afternoons, PGA Tour viewer numbers explode. If he is at home soaking in his Jacuzzi, the numbers evaporate, sometimes as much as 35 percent less.
Woods has never missed a Masters in 20 years, so there is no history to fall back on. However, in recent years, the lowest Masters Sunday TV rating came in 2012, the only year Woods was not in contention (tied for 40th).
The bigger picture focuses on the long-term effect on Wood’s career. Since he was old enough to admire greatness, Woods has been clear about his No. 1 objective: Surpassing Jack Nicklaus as the all-time major championship winner. When he won his 14th at Torrey Pines in 2008, it was clear he would one day reach Nicklaus’ total of 18.
Since then he has undergone knee and back surgery and constantly battled neck, back and leg problems. That reality places a mountain of doubt between Woods and his ultimate objective.
Former Ryder Cup captain and commentator Paul Azinger said as much during an interview on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike Show this morning.
“This is really scary for his future,” said Azinger. “Arguably the most fit golfer ever is being stopped by an unfit body. I don’t think he can change technique to deal with his lumbar. He is who he is. He is going to continue to swing hard at it…(especially the driver).
“At 38, he will never be what he was. Nobody will ever be what he was.”
And the bet here is that nobody, Tiger included, will ever be what Jack Nicklaus was – an 18-time major champion.