The pain is physical, a back that aches when Tiger Woods swings a golf club, which he must do if he is to play the game.
The pain is mental. The Masters is just over a week away, a tradition like no other, as we’re so often reminded by Jim Nantz, a tradition to which Woods has contributed greatly. And Tiger, winner of four green jackets, is wondering whether he’ll compete.
The Masters and, over the last decade-and-a-half, the master. A combination, a one-two punch, for golf, for television ratings, for springtime.
Now he waits. Now we wait. Now he is a 38-year-old golfer with a bad back who has us wondering whether, for the first time as pro, he will be able to enter the Masters.
The answer, understandably, has not been immediately forthcoming.
“For Augusta, it’s actually a little too soon,” Woods said last week about whether he’ll be there the second Thursday in April, according to Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.
Be there with Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and the rest of the sport’s elite.
Be there when the fans—“patrons,” they’re called—who crowd under the Georgia pines would be shouting, “Go get ‘em, Tiguh,” as he again chases that elusive 15th major.
A disappointing year for Woods. A frustrating year for Woods.
Just a couple of weeks ago, a withdrawal before the start of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando, Arnie’s course, where Woods has won eight times.
“Unfortunately, my back spasms and the pain haven't subsided,” Woods wrote in announcing his withdrawal on his website.
Before that, Tiger came in tied for 80th in the Farmers at Torrey Pines, where he had seven victories, plus one in the 2008 U.S. Open; got a tie for 41st in Dubai; had a withdrawal at the Honda, because of that back; then after therapy and rest and a round that woke up the echoes, a 66, more back troubles and a 25th at Doral.
A disappointing year, a frustrating year, perhaps a telling year.
Athletes, once they reach a critical point in their careers, inevitably get older, and rarely better.
Back injuries invariably get worse, and almost never get better.
If the Woods camp, primarily agent Mark Steinberg, knows the diagnosis, if indeed Tiger has a bulging disk as Golfweek.com's Jeff Rude reported, the information hasn’t been made public. Nor will it be until necessary.
Tiger chooses to keep things to himself. He’s private to the extreme.
Woods allows he is unable to hit balls, only chip and putt at his home in Florida. "I haven’t done that much," said Woods, per Svrluga. "Just listening to my doctors, just listening to my therapists."
What are they telling him? What he is hoping to tell us is he can go, even without a warm-up tournament, even without a top-20 finish since 2013.
After all, Tiger took the 2008 U.S. Open on a knee which had undergone surgery—and quickly would require more, terminating his year—having played only nine holes of practice golf.
Still, he was 32 at the time. There have been six more years of wear and tear, of an Achilles tendon injury, of other back incidents—the soft mattress at the Barclays in August—of those personal problems.
Six more years without another win in a major.
Six more years of facing others who are longer off the tee and no longer intimidated by Woods’ presence.
There was a time Tiger never was to be doubted and always was to be feared. He was a majority of one, as Adam Scott, last year’s Masters champ, recalled, after playing a practice round in 2000 not long after turning pro.
"It was clear," Scott told Karen Crouse of The New York Times before the Arnold Palmer Invitational, "(Tiger) was doing things that other players couldn’t do. And I don’t just mean like his mental strength that no one else seemed to have. It’s just that physically he was hitting shots no one else was capable of hitting."
He went under trees and over bunkers. He knocked them stiff from a mile away, or when he didn’t, Woods chipped in, as at the 2005 Masters when the ball, as if scripted, trickled into the cup at 16. What theater. What greatness.
Yet, sportsmen and women are beholden to their bodies. Pitchers throw out their arms. Halfbacks incur torn knee ligaments. Golfers grind up their backs. Or their hips.
Jack Nicklaus underwent a hip replacement. Fuzzy Zoeller, the guy who made a flippant remark after Tiger’s record ’97 Masters triumph—and maybe there’s irony in all of this—needed back surgery.
Nobody involved will say what Tiger needs. And while the Masters doesn’t need anyone in particular, it definitely can use Woods, who despite his mistakes and misfortune remains the single most compelling individual in golf.
Will Tiger miss his first Masters as a pro? He'll know soon enough. So will we.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered more than 145 major golf championships. You can follow him on Twitter @artspander.