ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The four-time Masters champion has an ailing back, and he’s been having it checked out even more regularly the last two weeks. It has reached the point that he is planning surgery after the Masters to see if he can get more comfortable playing golf.
No, that would be Arnold Palmer.
“The doctors have seen things that they think they might be able to do something about,” Palmer said Wednesday at Bay Hill. “And I’m at this point about a month away from having an operation on my back to help me enjoy the game a little more.”
Palmer can’t speak for Woods, who is unable to defend his title this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
A year ago at Bay Hill, all the talk was that Woods was back. He won Bay Hill to return to No. 1 in the world for the first time in more than two years.
Now all the talk is about Woods’ back.
He withdrew with five holes to play in the Honda Classic. His back bothered him the following week at Doral, and then flared up on Sunday as Woods posted a 78, the highest final-round score of his career. After a week off, the lower back pain was persistent enough that Woods called the 84-year-old tournament host to tell him he couldn’t defend his title in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“He didn’t tell me how bad his back is. I don’t think he knows how bad his back is,” Palmer said. “I think he’s listening to the doctors. And he mentioned that they’re saying that he needs to give it a bit of a rest and see if he can work it out. He was very nice. And I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play. And I appreciate that and the fact that he called.
“I think he wanted to play golf this week,” Palmer said. “I think that he needs to take (time) — whether it’s this week, next week or the following week — to get ready for Augusta. Certainly, if I were in that position, I’d be doing much the same.”
The field at Bay Hill is not as strong as usual, starting with the absence of Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and an eight-time winner of this event. Match Play champion Jason Day (No. 4 in the world) pulled out with recurring pain in his thumb, and Phil Mickelson (No. 5) is not playing this year.
Not that it would change the dynamics of what already has been a peculiar season.
With 18 tournaments in the books since to the official start of the season in October, Zach Johnson is the only player to win a PGA Tour event while ranked among the top 10 in the world.
Jimmy Walker has won three times. Patrick Reed, who feels like No. 5 but who still is only No. 20, has two victories, including a World Golf Championship.
The Masters is three weeks away. Is it time for the stars to come out?
“Hopefully, this one does,” Masters champion Adam Scott said, pointing to himself with a laugh. “But as far as unexpected winners, it seems to me that’s happening more and more in golf. There are more and more guys breaking through, putting in a lot of hard work and getting what they deserve. So I think we’ve seen a bit of a shift in the game over the last couple of years — a lot less domination by top players.”
Graeme McDowell, a runner-up to Woods two years at Bay Hill, said he can understand what the No. 1 player is going through with injuries. He also believes that competition might be an even larger obstacle than his health for Woods to break Jack Nicklaus’ record in the majors. Woods is at 14, four short of tying Nicklaus.
“He’s a physical player who creates a lot of speed and a lot of power and his body is starting to struggle a little bit, no doubt about it,” McDowell said. “But I’m sure he’ll fix it. ... But we all talk about how good the fields are nowadays. Taking Tiger’s fitness and physicality out of it, winning major championships is getting harder and harder for everyone — including the best player maybe that’s ever lived in Tiger.
“He’s got more than just his body to be fighting. There’s a lot of great players in the world now,” McDowell said. “It’s going to be harder for him to achieve Jack’s record. But if anyone can do it, I’m sure he can find a way because we all how good he is.”
Scott already had one chance at Doral to try to get to No. 1 in the world. Even if the Australian were to win this week, he would not go to No. 1, though a combination of winning and the math involved in the world ranking would put him there before the Masters.
For now, there is at least one less star to worry about this week — Woods.