Tiger Woods focused on the future

— -- Tiger Woods doesn't typically give us much; his penchant for keeping to himself is nearly as legendary as his golf exploits. But when the subject of this year's major championship venues came up late last year, Woods was all smiles.

He hardly tried to contain his enthusiasm when speaking about Augusta National, Pinehurst, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla. He knew his record on those layouts, and wasn't about to shy away from the subject.

"I've won at every one except Pinehurst," Woods said in December. "And I'm trending in the right way. I've finished second, third ... you get the picture, right? OK. So I'm looking forward to the major championships. They have set up well for me over the years, and I look forward to it."

So much for that optimism.

Woods is now out of the Masters due to back surgery performed on Monday, and his golf schedule for this summer -- as well as the rest of the year -- is in doubt.

But if Woods, 38, can put aside the short-term disappointment, getting to the bottom of his back issues, getting it fixed, and moving forward can actually be a good thing for the 14-time major champion.

That is not to say he'll come back ready to win at Pinehurst or Royal Liverpool or Valhalla. Or that he'll even be ready for the Ryder Cup.

And yet it offers the hope that his back pain, which has bothered him in some form since last year's PGA Championship, can be alleviated and he can get back to the business of playing golf at a high level.

It was Woods himself who admitted that a bad back "is no joke" and that dealing with the pain can lead to all sorts of issues with the golf swing.

"It's tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future," Woods said in a statement. "There are a couple of records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam [Snead] and Jack [Nicklaus] reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine."

That is clearly a sunny view on a rainy day. For Woods to miss his first Masters in 20 years has to be disheartening. But there's no way he was going to be effective playing the way he has to this point in the season.

Who knows if there was more going on in his game and in his back during his first two events, when he performed poorly at Torrey Pines and in Dubai?

Prior to Woods' first event of 2014, we had a brief chat during the pro-am at the Farmers Insurance Open, and he acknowledged that the offseason had been too short.

In retrospect, it is fair to wonder whether he was referring to more than the lack of time he got to spend at home with his family.

Woods later suggested that his golf was minimized in December and January in order to get ready for the "grind" of a long season. And yet, it took just three tournaments before the back issues that bothered him last fall were apparent again.

There were more than a few who wondered whether Woods had "quit" during the final round of the Honda Classic last month, when he was 5 over par through 13 holes. And whether he used the back as an excuse for some spotty play -- he did manage a third-round 66 -- at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Seems pretty absurd now.

Woods was trying desperately to find some form, and he seemed encouraged on the eve of the Doral tournament. But by Sunday, he was walking slowly, and early in the round he played a shot from an awkward lie that clearly had him in discomfort.

Finally we learned that he had a pinched nerve, and microdiscectomy surgery was performed Monday to alleviate the issue. He could be putting and chipping in three weeks, and while the U.S. Open would appear to be a long shot, who knows?

For Woods, he can point to a good success rate among other athletes who have had the surgery. He doesn't have to tackle anyone, or box out under the boards, but he does need the ability to swing a golf club at more than 100 mph. Doing so with any consistency with a back problem was proving to be a frustrating plight.

This year might be a loss, but better to get healthy and give it a go later. Snead's record of 82 career PGA Tour victories remains in sight, and while Nicklaus' 18 major championships were going to be a difficult achievement with or without back issues, there is nothing that says Woods can't again resume the quest at age 39.

You know that's what he is thinking.