When occasional slumps interrupted his endless run of victories earlier in his PGA Tour career, Tiger Woods used to always say he was close to regaining his form.
Now, with his health compromised by a continuous stretch of injuries and his career threatened by a painstakingly slow recovery from back surgery last fall, Woods can only talk about being close to playing again.
Woods, who turned 40 in December, can certainly distinguish between the two.
"The difference is, unfortunately, I've had enough surgeries over the years, I know what it feels like when I am close to coming back to playing," Woods said Monday."Then again, I also know what it feels like when I'm close enough to where I'm just maybe one or two swings away from reeling two or three or four wins in a row.
"Unfortunately I'm still trying to come back from surgery. It's been tough. It's not like my knee, where it's just a joint and it's no big deal. I can deal with a bad knee, deal with the pain, deal with the swelling, that's all fixable. Nerve pain is a whole new game. It's a life-changer."
The rust — not to mention his lack of pliability — was painfully evident when he put three straight shots with a sand wedge Monday into a pond by the 10th green at Congressional Country Club, where Woods made an appearance to publicize next month's Quickens Loans National, which he hosts each year.
Though Woods is relieved that the nerve pain that lingered for months after his third back surgery has finally gone away, the soreness and muscle fatigue still prevents him from practicing as much as he would like and swinging with the ferocity that he once did.
"As you all know, I like to work, I like to practice, I like to grind it and they tell you to get better, you have to do nothing, and that was hard, for a number of months," Woods said. "Now I'm finally able to start training, my golf muscles are starting to come back.
"I don't have the endurance yet. I can't go out there and hit balls all day, I don't have the strength and endurance part of it yet. That takes time and that takes development."
That Woods isn't sure whether he will be ready to play in a tournament he has now hosted for a decade — or, more significantly, in the U.S. Open at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh the week before — is also an indication that he hasn't progressed enough since undergoing his surgery Sept. 16 and a follow-up procedure at the end of October.
Asked how close he came to retiring after any of the back surgeries, Woods said, "If you would have [asked] me right after each surgery, yeah, because if anyone has ever had a microdiscectomy, the feeling and pain is not very good."
"The nerve pain going down the lane, that's no fun either, it's brutal," he continued. "Did I want to go through that whole process again of getting back? Some part of me said yes, and some part of me said no because it is hard."
Woods acknowledged that returning from a long absence at a major championship such as the U.S. Open at a course such at Oakmont would be difficult. Woods remains three wins shy of tying Sam Snead's record of 82 and four major titles shy of tying Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major wins.
"The one positive note to a U.S. Open," he said, "you don't have to go out there and make a bunch of birdies."