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What's next for Tiger after skipping Masters?

Tiger Woods tees off on the fourth hole

Tiger Woods tees off on the fourth hole during the final round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge golf tournament at Sherwood Country Club. (Dec. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

It was clear instantly after his announcement Tuesday that Tiger Woods' absence from the Masters would have a major impact. And so it will, mostly on Woods.

The Masters will go on as scheduled this week, albeit likely with lower television ratings, and someone will put on the green jacket next Sunday. But what is in store for Woods, his recovery from back surgery and his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles is way up in the air. Those questions will last much longer than this week.

"Who knows?" are the words that this week became synonymous with Tiger Woods.

On one hand, there is the popular feeling expressed this week by Arnold Palmer, who acknowledged that he does not know the details of Woods' microdiscectomy Monday in Utah, but said: "I think he is determined enough in his personality and his well-being that he will overcome any of the problems that might be created physically . . . I think the potential for him to win future major championships is still very real."

Then again, there is the blunt fact raised by Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who will work on ESPN's Masters coverage and said during a conference call with reporters Thursday: "The swing changes -- has that put more pressure on his back and joints? Who knows? It's all speculation. But the fact of the matter is, he is breaking down."

At least until the Masters begins, Woods' absence is a bigger story than anyone else's presence. The lingering issue for him and his sport is how much it will change the final draft of his career story. Is back surgery the last piece of an overall body tuneup or is it yet another crack in a vulnerable wall? Can he gain enough speed to get back ahead of a fast-moving field?

Adam Scott, the defending Masters champion, said on his pre-tournament (and pre-Woods injury) conference call that Woods is no less a factor than ever. But he added: "You've seen my generation of player, the Justin Roses . . . have raised the level of their own game over the last couple of years and believe it's their time to do it. They are not worried about Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. They are just into their own thing."

Measuring Woods' aura can be as slippery a business as trying to hit off the pine straw at Augusta National. Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, appeared to be saying the obvious when he told reporters at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, "He's lost that sort of force field of invincibility around him." Even though McDowell added that Woods is "still the greatest player ever," his comment drew such criticism from Tiger supporters that he issued numerous Twitter feeds basically apologizing.

Judging solely on the latest surgery, Woods should be just fine. Current and former tour pros said that having an operation is much wiser than trying to play through pain, which can create lasting flaws in a swing.

Jack Druga, head pro at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, a former U.S. Open participant, had the same procedure 13 years ago and said he was chipping and putting within weeks and hitting full shots in three months. He pointed out that Annika Sorenstam played at a high level for years after a microdiscectomy.

Druga knows why Woods' operation was a good idea: "People ask, 'How can you feel great for two days, then all of a sudden in the middle of a round, you can't do anything at all?' Well, I've been there."

Through experience, Druga predicts that doctors will advise Woods to cut back on his strenuous weightlifting and on the thousands of "reps" on the practice tee. Woods might be limited to working more on his short game and shot-making. "Who knows," Druga said. "Maybe this will help him."

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