Is this the back-nine for Tiger Woods' back? If so, then what?

The clearest sign I have seen that Tiger Woods knows his career is in peril did not come with Friday’s news that his balky back will force him to miss his next two scheduled tournaments.

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It is highly disappointing that one of those events is next week at Riviera Country Club, a course Tiger loves but has never conquered. And hasn’t played since 2006.

The clearest sign did not manifest with the 76-72 he posted at the Farmers Insurance Open, or the WD after shooting 77 last week in Dubai. It did not come from his latest narrative-controlling, website post about his lingering spasms.

Oh, those are incriminating signs all right.

The clearest sign to me, though, was caught on television after Woods’ missed the cut at Torrey Pines. The jaw-drop indicator was Tiger Woods standing in a rope line, patiently signing autographs for dozens of kids.

This was NOT Tiger of old, the rock star who exited golf complexes the way Elvis left arena halls.

While watching Tiger on TV, finally giving back to his community, it hit me: Tiger Knows. He knows, at 41, that he might never get back to the standard he set. He knows, after playing with bombers Dustin Johnson and Jason Day at Farmers, that he can’t compete in the same way.

Tiger realized that, while he may play well again, he can’t reach the scorched-earth level that allowed him to operate, obliviously, to everyone around him—even his most adoring fans.

Woods was so good, so rich, so dominant that he didn’t have to indulge in the public relations side of things. He, and his game, were above the fray. It wasn’t that Tiger didn’t give back. He founded a learning center and put his name to a lot of worthy causes.

But, never, in a personal way that would let you anywhere near his inside world.

I covered, for the Los Angeles Times, a lot of Tiger Woods in his prime, from his wipe-out performance at Pebble Beach, in 2000, to his incredible U.S. Open win at Torrey in 2008.

I was inside the ropes at Bethpage Black in 2002 when Tiger, in near total darkness at the end, tamed that public-course beast. And in Augusta, in 2005, when he beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff after rolling in his shot-of-the-century at No. 16.

I was even at Riviera in 2006, the last time Woods played in the ever-changing sponsored tournament long known as the Los Angeles Open.

I have seen Tiger do many great things.

The one thing I never saw him do was sign an autograph.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Seeing him do that, a couple weeks ago, made me realize maybe even Tiger knows things are different now. That, if he wants to stay relevant, he must cultivate something out of whole cloth. Become more humanized, more vulnerable. The sheer forcefulness of his game can no longer overcome his cold, assassin-mode demeanor.

I have asked these questions many times over the last couple years, as Tiger’s game has deteriorated: how long will people continue to be fascinated by him?

How much longer will fans push the rope line for a guy, with a bad back, who can’t break par?

How much longer will he receive $1 million appearance fees for showing up to tournaments he can’t finish?

How long will television care?

Tiger’s golf legend is secure. He is THE greatest player of his generation and, arguably, the best golfer who ever traveled Mark Twain's good walked spoiled. Many old-timers like me still side with Jack Nicklaus only because Tiger set the all-time greatness bar at Jack’s 18 professional majors.

THAT was the number Woods said you had to top. ��He seemed a cinch to break 18 after winning his 14th major at Torrey Pines in 2008.

He seems a cinch no more.

My question today isn’t about Tiger’s legacy; it’s about his enduring popularity and shelf life.

People who followed Arnold Palmer into his 80s didn’t care that he won his last PGA event in 1974. Fans followed Arnie because he was the genuine article who put sweat-equity into his "army" and earned in return a lifetime of devotion. Palmer looked people in the eye and answered every fan letter written to him.

Phil Mickelson, who was never going match Tiger on the course, made the decision early to be a modern-day version of Palmer. I have watched, on many occasions, Phil stand at the clubhouse at Riviera and sign autographs for an hour.

That investment will return dividends as Mickelson heads toward his back nine and the Champions Tour.

Fred Couples is the same way. Fans can relate to him.

But what becomes of Tiger if he can’t win tournaments? Isn’t that the only thing that drives him?

Woods lost scores of endorsements and admirers after his 2009 infidelity episode. He doesn’t, either, seem like the chummy type who will ease into the broadcast booth.

If Tiger is thinking that way, he might want to immediately book a sit down with David Feherty.

It’s a mystery to me what becomes of the mediocre, bad back Woods. Golf, after all, is a meritocracy. Even Tiger Woods understands that.

If he can’t get his back straightened out, where can he turn? Does he start the countdown toward his 50th birthday, and the Senior Tour?

Golf is a lifetime sport except, maybe, when you're the once-in-a-lifetime. When you're the one who changed the metric and honed your swing with short-term torque and violence, giving no thought at age 25 what that might mean at age 45.

Maybe Tiger Woods was different in more ways than we knew.

Maybe we’re seeing that now, and he’s seeing it too.[/membership]

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