PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The problems continue for Tiger Woods, only this time it's his livelihood, not his image, in the balance.
Woods withdrew after shooting 42 on the front nine at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday, citing pain in his left leg that has plagued him intermittently throughout his career.
"The knee acted up and then the Achilles followed after that, and then the calf started cramping up," said Woods, who triple-bogeyed the par-4 fourth hole and made three bogeys and no birdies. "Everything started getting tight, so it's just a whole chain reaction."
The injury for Woods raises red flags because his knee has been operated on four times, and he reinjured it while hitting a shot from under a tree at the Masters last month. The exact diagnosis was a grade-one mild medial collateral ligament sprain to his left knee and a mild strain to his left Achilles' tendon, both suffered while hitting a shot from pine straw on the 17th hole of his third round at Augusta. In an effort to let it heal, he did not enter the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow last week, an event he normally plays. He sounded optimistic about the injury earlier this week at Sawgrass.
"Oh, yeah, the knee is better, no doubt," Woods said Tuesday. "The Achilles is better, as well. So I'm here playing."
Thursday, though, was a struggle from the outset. Woods said he began feeling pain in his leg from "the first tee shot," and more pain when his foot slipped on pine straw on the second hole. Now there seems to be nothing "mild" about his situation, and after withdrawing he admitted he's concerned. His 42 was his highest nine-hole score at the Players by three shots, but not his highest on Tour. He's shot 43 four times, most recently on the back nine at last year's Wells Fargo Championship.
Woods withdrew from the 2010 Players, too, with an inflamed neck joint.
As his playing partners Martin Kaymer and Matt Kuchar stepped onto the 10th tee at 10:30 Thursday morning, Woods stepped to the podium to offer a few quotes before ducking into the locker room. He was directed into the Tour's medical trailer, where he stayed for about 60 seconds, before emerging and gingerly climbing into a white Mercedes in the players' parking lot, presumably for a two-hour ride home that would offer plenty of time for reflection.
"Tiger looked like he was in pain today," said Kuchar, who shot a 69. "Looked like you could tell he was walking quite slowly, quite gingerly it seemed like. He was just last to get to his ball every time as he was just walking so gingerly. It was funny, it looked like he was putting it great and driving it great, but the other clubs, other than those two, weren't so good for him today."
"Felt fine during warm-up," Woods said, "and then as I played it progressively got worse."
Woods, 35, has not won a tournament in 18 months, and has slipped to eighth in the World Ranking. It had been widely assumed that he would rebound from his tumultuous 2010, since his troubles then were personal and not career-threatening, but now it's anyone's guess when or whether Woods will win again.
He has shown signs of progress under his new swing coach, Sean Foley, but at the Masters he was undone by uncharacteristically poor putting. Now his concerns are far weightier, with a balky left leg that may no longer be able to support the violent torque of a golf swing.
"They said I could play," he said of his doctors. "The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously. Obviously it's a big event. I want to come back for it and play, and unfortunately I wasn't able to finish."
Although Woods typically plays in the Memorial between the Players and the U.S. Open, he may not be well enough to play in Jack Nicklaus's tournament, which begins June 2. The Open at Congressional Country Club is set for June 16-19.