SAN DIEGO -- Another PGA Tour event, another weekend without Tiger Woods. .
Poor play, especially a disturbingly bad short game, caused Tiger to miss the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last week, but it was a tight back that caused Tiger to walk off Thursday on his 12th hole and withdraw in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods hit his tee shot on the third tee, then walked to the green. Instead of putting out, he picked up his ball, shook hands with playing partners Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel, then walked off the green and waited a few seconds while Tour officials commandeered a golf cart to escort him back to the player parking lot.
No one knows if there are any long-term health ramifications from this back problem or whether they’re related to the back surgery that sidelined Woods from competitive golf most of last year.
All we know is, this can’t be good. It’s starting to look more and more as if Tiger’s biggest challenge isn’t rediscovering his swing, it’s staying healthy. He’s put a lot of torque on his back and knees over the years with his immensely powerful swing and in that regard, it’s fair to say he’s an old 39. And in sport, there is no substitute for youth. Ask Derek Jeter. Or any retired athlete.
Woods wrote off Thursday’s mash-up to a fog delay and a tight back. If that’s all it really is, that would be the best golf news of this new year.
Heavy fog shrouded the Torrey Pines coastline -- the sky was clear just a few miles inland and just a few miles to the north in Carlsbad. The courses were socked in, however, and play was delayed for an hour. Tiger’s threesome with Horschel and Fowler were ready to tee off at 10:20 after play had resumed, but then the fog crawled back over land on little cat’s feet, as a famous poet once wrote.
That led to another delay of nearly and hour and this is when Tiger’s back went south on the North Course. Or something like that.
“I was ready to go, I had a good warm-up session the first time around,” he said. “Then we stood out here and I got cold and everything started deactivating again. It’s frustrating that I just can’t stay activated. My back just never loosened up… and got progressively worse.”
Woods explained that his problem is that his glute muscles shut down and wouldn’t reactivate and, hence, the back pain. This is the kind of thing you know about if you’ve got a bad back and you’ve spent too much time with a physiotherapist.
Whose fault was it that he spent the second delay standing around chit-chatting instead of activating those danged old glutes in the fitness trailer? Well, there’s no reason for finger-pointing. It was just an unfortunate circumstance.
Last week, Tiger’s return to Phoenix for the first time in 14 years generated an enormous surge of golf interest, which was only slightly lessened by his horrific chipping that resulted in missing the cut.
That display made Tiger a curiosity for this week’s event as fans and media alike wondered how the best short-game player in the world suddenly couldn’t chip and was blading and fluffing shots like a 14-handicapper. Even his appearance in Wednesday’s pro-am drew a big gallery, much like a car wreck, but nothing definitive was learned then, either, because a fog delay forced the tournament to shorten the pro-am program to nine holes.
Tiger being sidelined by an ailment, or possibly an injury, was a kick in the gut for golf. Woods had been sure that all he needed was more reps -- repetitions, as he calls them -- to get his game back in shape with his latest coach, Chris Como. Of course, in Phoenix he said that he’s straightened out his short game and chipping woes, which we noticed in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in December, by hitting “thousands and thousands and thousands” of practice chips.
So this is where we are with Tiger Woods -- lost in the fog. We don’t know if his swing is coming around or if his short game actually is any better. Does he really have the chipping yips, as many suspect, or is his technique messed up because he is, as he describes it, caught between two swings?
And now, is he hurt again? Was this back problem related to his surgery? Is it another new problem or was it just a case of too much standing around before he played? Whose fault was it for standing around and letting the glutes deactivate?
There’s no point in assigning blame now but the Tiger of old definitely would not have spent a delay just chatting around the practice green.
Two weeks in a row on the PGA Tour and Tiger hasn’t answered any questions, just raised new ones. Well, that’s going to keep us talking for another month or until Tiger tees it up again -- presumably at the Honda Classic in March but hey, Tiger’s schedule is in Tiger’s hands. He can adjust it however he wishes.
The injury was disappointing because onlookers were hoping to get insight into the state of Tiger’s game.
What signals we got were mixed. He missed the 10th green at the start, had kind of short-sided himself, and then powered a bad chip shot 25 feet past for an opening bogey.
The 11th hole looked as if it would be even uglier. He pushed a drive into the right rough, then hit a fairway metal under a tree and up the right side. He missed the green with his third shot, a poor shot, and then, facing nearly a similar situation as at the 10th, dropped a chip shot onto the green and watched it roll into the dead-center of the cup. That was quite a par.
Tiger had already begun walking kind of stiffly at the 12th, a par 3. He blocked his tee shot way, way right of the green, did well to keep a pitch on the green and made another bogey.
At No. 13, he took an unusually easy swing with his driver and flared it way right. He holed a good eight-footer to save another par but it was becoming obvious that something was physically bothering Woods. Even Horschel noticed, stooping once or twice to retrieve Tiger’s tee for him after he’d hit.
There was no doubt after the 15th hole. He popped up a drive, then reached his right arm around to his lower back and left it there for a few seconds, wincing in pain.
Surprisingly, he hit the last three greens in regulation and was starting to swing a little better when the group made the turn and then had to wait for a backup on the first tee.
Golf Channel cameras showed Woods, Fowler and Horschel sitting against a scoring tent and waiting. Horschel talked most of the time -- no surprise there. Fowler was busy wolfing down some kind of energy bar. Woods managed the occasional smile at Horschel’s chatter but mostly sat there looking extremely uncomfortable.
It was a mild upset, given his back and given the wait, that he kept going. The only upside was, Woods knew that No. 2 and No. 3 on the North Course come back toward the clubhouse. If you’re going to retire, the third green is the last opportune location to do so.
Tiger probably didn’t need any additional motivation to hang it up -- playing hurt is never a good idea in golf. But if he did, it came at the short par-4 second hole. Woods went for the green but missed it to the right, finding some of the thickest rough on the Torrey Pines property. He tried a long flop shot but his back didn’t let him turn the way he needed and he sent it long and over the green on the fly. From there, he had an uphill pitch from more thick rough, fluffed it short of the green, and then chipped it 25 feet past. He two-putted for a double bogey on one of the easiest holes on the course.
Tiger deposited an approach shot on the next green, some 40 feet from the pin, but never putted. He shook hands with his competitors and jumped on a cart.
In the players’ parking lot, a horde of media converged on Tiger’s car like it was a free buffet of strip steaks. Woods graciously said a few words for a battery of cameras. Then Tour officials backed everyone up.
Tiger gingerly got into the driver’s seat of his car while caddie Joe LaCava packed the golf clubs in a travel cover and pushed them into the back seat.
Hyundai is supplying the courtesy cars for the Farmers Insurance Open this week but Tiger wasn’t driving a Hyundai. It was a black, four-door Porsche Panamera with a sleek fastback design. It’s one hot car. Tiger doesn’t have a deal with Buick anymore but based on appearances, he’s still doing okay.
As he backed out and pulled away in the snazzy Porsche, his glutes probably already felt better.
At least, we hope so.