DORAL, Fla. — The speculation at the start of the year was when Tiger Woods would win.
Now it's when he can play again.
The sequence Sunday at Doral was troubling. Woods hobbled. He changed his shoes at the turn. He began lifting his left leg to try to flex his ankle. He limped. And after one last powerful swing that produced a 321-yard drive on the 12th hole, he winced and walked over to Webb Simpson to tell him he was done for the day.
“He just shook my hand and said, ‘I've got to go in.’ You could tell he was hurting,” Simpson said.
To what degree, only Woods knows. And when he does, it becomes a matter of how much information he will share.
He started Monday night with Twitter, limited to only 140 characters: “Got good news from doc tonight. Only mild strain of left Achilles. Can resume hitting balls late in week and hopeful for next week.”
Woods said his left Achilles tendon felt tight as he warmed up on the practice range before the final round of the Cadillac Championship, and it got worse from there. Still unanswered is how the tendon flared up without notice. Perhaps the more important question is whether — or when — it might happen again.
Remember, it's the same Achilles tendon that caused him to miss two majors last year.
The Masters starts in 24 days.
This is the one major he has never missed. Augusta National is where so many expected him to resume pursuit of the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, the only record that really ever mattered to Woods, who has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open.
Beyond that benchmark, however, comes another question that no longer seems as ludicrous as the injuries keep piling up.
Will Woods ever win again?
Until Sunday, he was making big strides in that direction. Woods ended last year with an unofficial win in his Chevron World Challenge against an 18-man field, with birdies on the last two holes. He started this year tied for the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi and finished two shots behind Robert Rock. Only a week ago, he shot his lowest final round ever — a 62 that was punctuated with a 5-iron over the water to 8 feet for an eagle that put a brief scare into Rory McIlroy.
But he's not winning.
Worse yet, he's not giving himself as many chances as he once did.
Woods has played only 32 tournaments since returning, at the 2010 Masters, from the scandal in his personal life. He has missed the cut twice. He has withdrawn three times. And he has 21 finishes out of the top 10 — that's as many times out of the top 10 from the 2004 U.S. Open to his last official win at the 2009 Australian Masters.
Woods has not played a complete season since 2009, and that one didn't get started until the Match Play Championship when he returned from reconstructive knee surgery.
He's not the same player he was. That much is clear.
He might not ever be.
Woods turned 36 at the end of last year, but he's an old 36.
Woods already has had four surgeries on his left knee dating to when he was at Stanford. He first mentioned his left Achilles after the Masters last year, saying he injured it in the third round at Augusta while trying to play a shot from an awkward stance under Eisenhower's Tree on the 17th hole.
He tried to return too early at The Players Championship and quit after nine holes and 42 shots, then sat out for three months until he was convinced his left leg was strong as ever. That enabled him to work on his new swing, to resume physical training, to get stronger.
There was no indication of an Achilles problem until early in the final round. And that can only lead to speculation that perhaps his Achilles really is his Achilles, more than the knee.
Nicklaus only won four majors after he turned 36, and Nicklaus was never seriously injured. He didn't have to withdraw from a major until seven years later, when he was 43, because of a bad back.
“For him to go back and win again, he'll have to figure out that he's a different person today than he was five years ago,” Nicklaus said last week at the Honda Classic. “I was a different person when I was 25 years old than when I was 35 years old. I had to learn how to play. I didn't have the strength. I couldn't overpower the golf course.
“I've got great respect for Tiger's golf game, and I think he'll be back.”
Woods at least learned one lesson. After he injured his Achilles at the Masters last year, he returned a month later at The Players Championship even though some in his camp thought he should have waited another month to be sure he was fine.
He hopes to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which starts March 22, his last tournament before the Masters.
“In the past, I may have tried to continue to play,” Woods said Sunday. “But this time, I decided to do what I thought was necessary.”
Still, each injury makes him look more mortal.
And even if Woods is a “normal” 36, the competition is getting younger. Maybe it was just the magic of television, but when NBC Sports turned its camera from Woods driving away from Doral, it returned to McIlroy holing a bunker shot for eagle on the 12th hole as Boy Wonder came from eight shots down and nearly won.
In 12 tournaments on the PGA Tour this year, nine of the winners have been younger than Woods.
McIlroy was playing in the group behind Woods when he saw him get in a cart with his caddie, Joe LaCava. He thought Woods might have been going to use the restroom, discovering moments later what had happened.
“It's a shame, because he looked like he was coming out this year, swinging it really well, playing good, getting himself into contention,” McIlroy said. “It's probably just precautionary, but I really hope he's ready for the Masters. Tiger Woods has been the face of golf for the last 15 years. Feeling like he's coming back to his best, or something near his best, it's great for the game.
“He can spark an interest in the game that no one else can.”
Woods can only raise interest if he's playing, though. And the interest spikes when he's winning.
Right now, he's not doing either.
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