There was the suspicion of a 2014 April fool.
A shock Tiger Woods bulletin, posted on the first day of that month, explained that the golfer had recently undergone surgery on a nerve in his back and therefore would not be appearing at the 78th edition of the Masters.
There was no spoof element. So began a chain of events that has come full circle to now; less than a fortnight before the first major of 2016, with outright silence regarding whether the finest golfer of his generation will take to the first tee next month.
It represents an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of this Masters buildup: when will Woods offer his latest, inevitably bland but significant, fitness bulletin? Woods is known to be in fine spirits but quite how that translates into returning to the only working environment he knows will be subject to a latest release within days.
The odds are heavily stacked against a Georgia comeback. The percentage chance – 10, for argument’s sake – that Woods will return to the venue where he has donned a Green Jacket four times is based on only two narratives.
One is unsubstantiated whisper, that his recovery from a back ailment is such that he has already taken to working alongside his caddie Joe LaCava from his Florida base. It is readily offset by not a single sighting of the 14-times major winner on a course. Where, presumably, he has to test his game and body.
If the rumour is true, Woods is considerably further ahead with his recuperation than when insisting in early March that he had not been in suitable condition to complete full golf holes. And if it is true, he has Georgia on his mind.
LaCava insisted last month that he had no intentions of seeking alternative employment, despite Woods’s stricken state. “A couple of guys approached me but I politely said no,” said the veteran bag man. “My plan is to wait for Tiger to get back. I’ve told them I just want to work for Tiger and nobody else at this point.”
Perhaps LaCava has simply been enjoying some deserved and extended family time after years on the road. Perhaps he knows something we all do not.
The other unavoidable truth is that Woods loves to play the hero. He would be deeply excited by the prospect not only of proving his increasing number of doubters wrong, but demonstrating the refusal of his body to be beaten by injury. The caveat to this bravado is that Woods’s ferocious competitive instinct means he will see no point whatsoever in featuring in a tournament where he cannot play a prominent part. This would prove a pointless vanity project and further strand of embarrassment in front of a lip-licking watching world.
Albeit from less of a stricken condition – he had not played tournament golf in two months – Woods announced on 3 April last year that he would make his 20th Masters appearance. He duly finished in a highly creditable share of 17th place. Second and third rounds of 69 and 68 respectively demonstrated his ability to work around Augusta National on the grounds of experience alone, the antidote to rust.
There was no subsequent improvement. Woods is now the 467th ranked golfer in the world, a cruel statistic in the week of the WGC Match Play Championship. In 2006, Woods beat Stephen Ames 9&8 in the same event. He holds the record of 13 match wins in a row in the tournament.
Gary Player once suggested he could fix Woods’s troubles in an hour. This week, the South African offered his latest critique of the 40-year-old with the insistence that Woods’s coaches – Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and Sean Foley – actually played a part in his demise. Player and anodyne opinion have never proved natural bedfellows.
“He had his problems outside of golf,” Player said. “And then, he wins the US Open by 15 shots [in 2000]. He was on his way to being the greatest player the world has ever seen. No question.
“He then goes and has lessons and gets this man’s opinion, that man’s opinion, then another man. Three different coaches. And he gets, as he said to me at Augusta: ‘I’m confused.’ He said to me: ‘I have sleep deprivation. I only sleep three hours a night.’ So these things have a lot to do with it. Nothing to do with his body; you go and watch some of these football players, big here, big there, big shoulders and biceps. They can play beautiful golf, hitting the ball a long way.
“I think it’s the fact he had all these lessons. If he never had a lesson after he won that US Open by 15 shots, I firmly believe he would have won 22 majors.”
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