Time to quiet the Tiger quitter talk


DORAL, Fla. -- What's the statute of limitations on despising someone?

Does dislike (bordering on occasional hatred) have an expiration date?

Or more succinctly, why do so many people have a jones against Tiger Woods?

Woods returned to a golf course Wednesday. Three days after withdrawing from the final round of the Honda Classic, he was here at Trump National Doral for a rescheduled news conference. The opening topic: the condition of his back.

"I feel better, how about that?" Woods said, smiling. "It feels good."

If Woods is concerned about the lower back spasms that caused him to limp off PGA National after 13 holes last Sunday, he didn't show it. If he's aware of the whispers, murmuring and backlash related to the latest withdrawal, he didn't show that either.

"As we get older -- and I've learned it as I've aged -- I don't quite heal as fast as I used to," said Woods, who will begin Thursday's WGC-Cadillac Championship without having played a practice round on the revamped Blue Monster. "I just don't bounce-back like I used to ... There's times that watching my kids run around, I wish I could do that again."

The line got a laugh in the room. But make no mistake: The growing, vocal anti-Woods faction jumped on the WD at Honda like kids on a backyard trampoline. The criticism of his decision to call it quits in the final round (he was 5-over-par for the day) was unfiltered, unlimited and, all things considered, unreasonable.

Here's a Godiva sampler of assorted emails and tweets I've received since the walk-off:

--"He is only `hurt' when he is out of contention and playing poorly. . . [He's] a cheat and a quitter when the going gets tough."

--"Don't worry, Tiger will be back [this] week. You can count on it: a nonexistent injury heals remarkably quickly."

--"Tiger will be fine -- until he gets to 5-over."

--"Just another top-30 golfer these days."

--"... It's very fortunate his injuries don't show up when he is in contention. Oh, that's right -- the 2008 U.S. Open. Guess what, he didn't withdraw."

There seems to be no in-between when it comes to Woods. He is a polarizing figure whose every word and action is analyzed as if it were a frame of Zapruder film.

Did he WD because his back was killing him, or was he jaking it?

Did he walk off because he didn't want to risk further injury or because he didn't want to risk further embarrassment (he shot a front-nine 40)?

He said in a quickie statement last Sunday that his back pain was similar to what he experienced at Barclay's in 2013. He played through the pain there, but he bailed at Honda? What gives?

In short, there are a lot of people out there who don't trust Tiger.

"He's held to a different standard, for sure," said Steve Stricker, whose reputation on the PGA Tour as a stand-up guy is beyond reproach. "People hold him up to this high standard that is unfair at times."

Then Stricker, a frequent Ryder Cup partner of Woods, got to the gist of it.

"I think the whole thing that fell apart for him has created that, don't you?" he said.

The whole thing that fell apart. We all know what Stricker is delicately referring to -- Woods' personal issues in 2009.

Yes, Woods' reputation got kneecapped by the revelations. Four-plus years later, some people, even some of his own PGA Tour peers, have difficulty moving on. His detractors revel in his misery and in his injuries. They try to somehow connect the dots between 2009 and the WDs. Or they try to link 2009 with his rules controversies, such as the incident on No. 15 at last year's Masters.

There's always a conspiracy theory when it comes to Woods. He can't just botch a drop at Augusta National. No, it has to be Velcro'd to some sort of character flaw.

He can't just be injured like other players who have WD'd. No, there has to be some greater meaning. He's trying to pull one over on us!

"I think he's really hurting," Stricker said. "I think he's really been hurting for a while. I don't think his body's holding up."

Woods is 38. Who know how many golf swings he's made during his life, or even during his 18-year professional career. A million? Ten million? Throw out a number and I'll buy it.

Bad knees. Bad Achilles. Bad back. Bad wrist. Bad elbow. Bad neck. And those are just the ones we know about.

So when Woods walks off a course -- in or out of contention -- I don't question it. Just as I didn't question the severity of Jay Cutler's knee injury during the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Unless it's your knee or your back, how can you question the authenticity of the injury?

"The will to win hasn't changed," Woods said. "It's physically, am I able to do it? ... A bad back is no joke."

But if you distrust Woods -- and many do -- it's easier and more convenient to simply say he quit because he wasn't going to win the tournament. They said it last Sunday at Honda, here at Doral in 2012, and at The Players in 2011 and 2010.

It looks bad: four injury-related WD's in the past five years.

But only three of those WD's were during the final round and with him out of contention. And as a reminder, that's a grand total of three final-round WD's in 18 years -- a span of 297 events as a pro.

Stricker is a friend of Woods, but not a sycophant. He understands that Woods' past has influenced the present and future perception of the world's No. 1-ranked player.

"I think that's the nature of the beast," Stricker said. "You're under that microscope. You can't live up to that."

Woods has earned his share of criticism throughout the years. But a quitter? A jake artist? My microscope doesn't see it.