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JERSEY CITY, N.J. — The words were spoken a few months ago, in the aftermath of missing a cut, but what Tiger Woods said then seems all the more appropriate now.

“I’m the Masters champion and 43 years old and that’s a pretty good accomplishment,” he said.

It’s a shame it wasn’t recognized as such back then.

Sure, Woods shares some of the blame for the expectations that followed his unlikely triumph at the Masters, where he claimed a fifth green jacket and 15th major title, completing one of sports’ more remarkable comebacks — returning from multiple back surgeries, including a spinal fusion that changed his life.

There was immediately talk about matching Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record for victories. About being a playing captain on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. About returning to No. 1 in the world. About renewing the chase of Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record.

Simply appreciating the accomplishment might have been better.

Something went amiss from the time Woods drove down Magnolia Lane in triumph late on April 14 to the time he hit his first tee shot at Bethpage Black for the PGA Championship on May 16. Because he has not been the same golfer since leaving the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.

Speculation, of course, has covered the gamut, some of it bordering on ridiculous, questioning his work ethic and desire.

But the fear that has been in the back of everyone’s mind from the first round he played in the Bahamas in late 2017 is apparently hitting home: There are only so many swings left in that body, and there were bound to be setbacks.

And Woods is dealing with one now.

A withdrawal from the Northern Trust on Friday hours before he was to play his second round at Liberty National came as a surprise, only because Woods showed little sign of distress in an opening-round 75.

But the clues of the past weeks and months pointed to a golfer operating at far less than full health. Woods said as much, noting the “stiffness” that is part of his everyday life.

And yet it was there for all of us to see and wonder about, from Bethpage to Muirfield Village to Pebble Beach to Royal Portrush and now within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

Who knows if something occurred to make it worse while Woods was on a two-week vacation to Thailand following the U.S. Open. But the problems have seemed even more pronounced since he shot a final-round 69 at Pebble Beach and then showed up slow and groggy and never quite in sync in Northern Ireland.

Woods visibly winced on several tee shots there, then couldn’t make it through the pro-am here on Wednesday, electing to be cautious. Now he’s out with what he said is a mild oblique injury, not having ruled out next week’s BMW Championship but leaving plenty of reason to wonder why he’d even bother.

“I’ve said in the past that years ago he just would have continued to play through all of this,” said Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg. “If he had the same mentality he had years and years ago, he wouldn’t be playing golf at all right now. He said it the other day, this is the new normal.”

Steinberg more or less confirmed what most of us believed: Woods is having trouble competing at the highest level because he’s not been able to put in the time necessary to be competitive.

That was clear on Thursday when Woods’ 75 was due more to sloppiness than bad golf. Yes, he made a double bogey, but he also missed some routine shots, short-iron approaches that should have yielded birdie attempts rather than bogeys, a bladed sand wedge, some poor putting.

The course was playing too easy for Woods to shoot that score, even on a bad day. So being rusty certainly played into the struggles, likely due to a lack of practice. And that’s all down to injury or stiffness or some combination that kept him from spending the time necessary to work on his game.

Steinberg said he senses a level of frustration out of Woods, who has dealt with this much in the last several years, thwarting full seasons in 2016 and 2017. But Woods also might have a better big-picture grip on the situation than those who can only speculate on what is happening.

“He appreciates the fact that he’s still out here,” Steinberg said. “To get back out here allowed him to win the Tour Championship. Allowed him to win his 15th major. He’s frustrated, but appreciative. He’s taking what his body gives him right now.”

Steinberg said next week’s BMW Championship has not been ruled out, and that whether he plays or not, he’ll have a lengthy down period following the Tour Championship prior to playing a PGA Tour event in Japan in late October.

Woods deserves better than having to deal with injuries again. Regardless of how it all went down this year, the highlight was going to be the Masters victory, and he could — and might still — spend the rest of his career reveling in that win.

He recognized it back in May when he missed the cut at the PGA, finding perspective in the “pretty good accomplishment” a month earlier at the Masters.

That feat only looks bigger and better now.

Around Third

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August 9, 2019 at 03:03PM