CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Pretty much everyone expected Tiger Woods to be at Quail Hollow this week. Wells Fargo Championship tournament officials. The PGA Tour. The media. His caddie. Perhaps even Tiger himself.
That he is not here says a lot about how big his Masters victory was to him and his future, how he might now treat the major championships, and how he is seemingly unconcerned about “tournament reps” heading into the next one.
And it will inevitably draw comparisons to Ben Hogan, who not only survived a near-fatal car crash but returned to win the U.S. Open the following year. He went on to win five more major championships, all while playing a very limited schedule that saw him put nearly all of his focus on the biggest tournaments.
What Woods’ absence — this week or any week he is expected to play — is unlikely to do is dampen speculation about injury, a constant source of conjecture when anyone spots an abnormality in his gait in the aftermath of the various starts and stops due to four back surgeries.
That occurred last Thursday when Woods sat for his first extensive interview since the Masters victory with GolfTV, which released video of the golfer looking as if he were walking across hot coals when he entered the room.
The champ is here… pic.twitter.com/72k3Y6aUSV
— GOLFTV (@GOLFTV) April 25, 2019
A day later, Woods was shown warming up on the driving range at his home course in South Florida, with caddie Joe LaCava by his side, and all appeared normal.
“Nobody should lose their mind over this,” agent Mark Steinberg said after Woods did not enter the Wells Fargo, also adding that he was proud of the golfer for “being smart about it,” and noting that while Woods is often sore, that is a big difference from being hurt.
“He requires some down time and he doesn’t feel he has enough time to get ready,” Steinberg said.
Fair enough. Woods has never been one to just show up, his mantra typically being that he is there to win.
But it is interesting to note that just three times previously in his career has Woods not played a tournament between major championships — which is now set to be the case, as the new start date for the PGA Championship is just over two weeks away on May 16.
In 1999, Woods skipped the three tournaments between The Open and the PGA and ended up winning his second major championship at Medinah.
In 2006, Woods missed time between the Masters and the U.S. Open due to the ailing health and death of his father, Earl; Woods missed the cut at the U.S. Open, the first time in his pro career that he missed a cut in a major.
In 2008, Woods famously won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines after not playing following the Masters due to what was described as minor knee surgery and was later revealed also included two fractures in his leg.
And in 2013, Woods experienced elbow issues at the U.S. Open, causing him to drop out of scheduled starts at the AT&T National — a tournament he hosted — and The Greenbrier prior to The Open. He tied for sixth at Muirfield.
In each of those cases, the absence between majors was not planned. Woods has clearly seen value in using a tournament or two as important preparation for the next big tournament. And if he struggles at Bethpage Black in two weeks, the second-guessing will undoubtedly commence.
But Woods bought himself a good bit of latitude with the Masters victory and 15th major championship triumph. Not only did he reestablish himself among the major elite — he has contended in the past three — but he solidified himself among the top 10 in the world and moved well up the points list in both the FedEx Cup and Presidents Cup standings.
And while it undoubtedly was never going to be an issue in the short term, Woods secured a five-year U.S. Open exemption (he was already exempt for 2019), meaning he is all but assured of spots in the major championships for as long as he is competitive.
So skipping a random PGA Tour event for the sake of rest and rehabilitation and practice at home is probably not a bad thing. And it might signal that this could happen more frequently, as soon as next month when everyone expects him to play the Memorial Tournament — two weeks after the PGA, two weeks prior to the U.S. Open.
And following the U.S. Open, Woods was hardly a lock to play any of the events before The Open at Royal Portrush. While playing just the three major championships over the next 11 weeks seems unlikely, it is possible.
Woods knows his golf history, and if he digs into the details he will find that after Hogan’s horrible crash in 1949 left him hospitalized for nearly two months, the nine-time major champion never returned to a full schedule. He played nine tournaments in 1950, the year he won the U.S. Open in a playoff at Merion a mere 16 months after the crash, a total he deemed too much.
Hogan never played that often again, as walking took a tremendous toll on his legs. He won majors in three of the next four years — including three in 1953, the last of his nine — but often played just a handful of events.
Of course, Hogan didn’t have lucrative, no-cut World Golf Championship events to contest. Nor was there anything like the FedEx Cup playoffs, which crown a yearlong PGA Tour champion.
The latter will be particularly interesting going forward for Woods, who is nothing else if not competitive. He doesn’t want to just show up for the playoff events. The new format of the Tour Championship means he won’t be able to do what he did last year — win the tournament while not winning the overall title.
Already, Woods has seen his FedEx Cup points ranking slip from 13th to 16th since the Masters. He remains ninth in the Presidents Cup team standings, and Woods has made a point of saying he wants to make his own team without a pick.
Woods made it clear again after the Masters that “I’m not going to play as much as I did last year,” when he was exhausted following a stretch that saw him play seven out of nine weeks to end the season, including the Ryder Cup.
Still, Woods faces five out of six weeks in July and August if he plays the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational the week after The Open and then plays three consecutive playoff events in August.
Then he has a busy fall, with an announced trip to Japan in October for the PGA Tour’s first-ever event there (as well as an exhibition match to be announced) followed six weeks later by his Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas and the Presidents Cup in Australia.
None of that likely figured into Woods’ decision to skip this week. Only two weeks have gone by since a hugely popular Masters win, one that even he could not have foreseen all that long ago.
Perhaps he just wanted to revel in that a bit longer. And who could blame him.