For the first time since he was in high school, Tiger Woods will miss the US Open. Yesterday he announced his absence from next week's major at Congressional saying he had broken the habit of a lifetime and listened to the doctors' advice.
The 35-year-old's left leg injury forced his withdrawal after just nine holes at last month's Players Championship and, unlike at Torrey Pines three years ago, Woods is not prepared to put the rest of his career in jeopardy. However, the news is bound to raise the debate over what his golfing future holds.
"I am extremely disappointed I won't be playing in the US Open, but it's time for me to listen to my doctors and focus on the future," wrote Woods on his website. "I was hopeful that I could play, but if I did, I risk further damage to my left leg. My knee and achilles tendon are not fully healed."
Woods said he hoped to be ready for the AT&T National, in a fortnight's time, and then for next month's Open Championship at Sandwich. The Royal & Ancient will be relieved to hear it, although they would be wise for not printing the posters just yet. Two weeks ago he expressed confidence he would be ready for the US Open, an event he hasn't missed since he was preparing to enrol in college in 1994.
"We're very disappointed that he won't be playing in the National Open," said the USGA executive director, Mike Davis, whom Woods called with his news yesterday morning. "He certainly brings excitement to the event. He'll be missed, but the US Open will go on. The event is bigger than one player."
In truth, it would have been a stretch of the imagination to even imagine him reprising the heroics of 2008, when he won, as legend says, "on one leg". Perhaps it says much about the former world No 1's dramatic fall that he was willing to ignore the medics and again push himself through the pain barrier in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's major haul of 18.
But then, back in those days, he still had a peerless winning ratio. Now he hasn't won since the 2009 Australian Masters, a stretch of 22 tournaments. He not only lost his No 1 ranking late last year, but has plummeted to No 15, his lowest spot in the rankings since he was a majorless wannabe in 1997.
"It's been a frustrating and difficult year, but I'm committed to my long-term health," said Woods. "I want to thank the fans for their encouragement and support. I am truly grateful and will be back playing when I can."
The question is centred on the "when". Woods is recovering from injuries to his left knee ligaments and left achilles, and it is the latter which is believed to be giving him most trouble. "My man is hurting," said Arjun Atwal, a close friend and frequent practice partner, last week. "He's in a boot, he's on crutches. Not doing good."
The most recent of four surgeries on Woods' left knee came a week after that spectacular win at Torrey Pines. He underwent reconstructive surgery and was out for eight months, then returned and won seven times the following year before his personal life imploded late in 2009 as revelations of his multiple affairs emerged. The belief was that his fierce competitive spirit would shrug off the ridicule and the rust to reclaim his place as golf's unchallenged master. The stats now tell a different story.
The US Open will be the 12th straight major without Woods winning, the longest drought of his career. After this news the positive nature of his words two weeks ago will ring decidedly hollow. "I still have plenty of time, and I feel that going forward, I'm excited about playing majors golf again," he said. "I just want to be healthy and solid, and I feel like I can give it a go."
He won't and, regardless of whatever Woods has been through, his withdrawal was still met with a level of shock by his fellow pros last night. "Of course it's a massive blow for the US Open – to not have one of the greatest players that's ever lived is massive," said Graeme McDowell, the Ulsterman who will defend his title at Congressional.
"There have been question marks over his health for the last couple of months," McDowell continued. "When I saw him hobbling through the locker room at the Players Championship the warning signs were there.
"Will he be back? Nobody knows at the minute. There's obviously a lot going on. Mental health is one question and his physical health is now another."