Woods fights through back pain to move into contention at Barclays

Tiger Woods made four birdies and two bogeys on Friday.
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – His left knee, slightly bent, was slightly ahead of his right, also slightly bent, while his left arm, fully extended, leaned on his club for balance, lest the entire human Jenga tower come crashing down to the ground.

As he stood precariously on the 15th tee, about to pick up his tee after splitting another fairway, Tiger Woods hardly looked like the picture of health. If anything, it appeared Bethpage Black had brought him to his knees, not the other way around. But in a day reminiscent of the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods, playing through searing lower-back pain, shot 69 and was at five under overall, three shots behind Sergio Garcia (68) and Nick Watney (69) at the Barclays.

“I must have slept funny on it,” Woods said after making four birdies and two bogeys, and before he sought treatment in one of the two medical trailers stationed between the media tent and the Bethpage parking lot.

“Soft beds at the hotel, and woke up this morning with it stiff. You know, as I warmed up it got progressively worse, and then you saw what happened on the golf course.”

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Woods spent a little more than an hour in the fitness trailer after his round.

Despite his solid score, Woods winced his way around the course for much of his round Friday. He gingerly placed his ball on the tee, and retrieved it, and agonized as he fished his ball out of the hole. He looked to be in the greatest pain as he hit his tee shot on the par-4 10th hole, and when he nearly fell into the fairway bunker he’d hit his drive into on the par-5 13th hole.

“It was like a section of movement,” said Woods, who won the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. “So it didn’t hurt standing up, it didn’t hurt at the bottom of a squat, but it was the somewhere in between there it was going to catch. You know, it would grab just before impact, so you’d kind of expect it, so I could get through that. I’ve been through that kind of stuff before, so I know what it feels like.”

Asked if he tried to remind himself of the ’08 U.S. Open, which he won on a badly injured left leg, Woods said, “Well, there’s a difference between being in pain and injured. This is just a little bit of pain. That was an injury.”

Rory McIlroy (73, even par) and Zach Johnson (75, 1 over) played with Woods for the second straight day and knew immediately he wasn’t right.

“On the first he grimaced picking his ball out of the hole,” McIlroy said. “And on the second, too.”

Still, Woods persevered. He hit nine out of 14 fairways and 13 out of 18 greens in regulation, in both cases for the second straight day. He took 29 putts.

Woods was an odd mix of pain, awkward contortions, and great shots. He winced again after his drive on the 16th hole, but his ball split the fairway. He and his caddie, Joe LaCava, then started laughing about something as they stood on the back of the tee waiting for Johnson and McIlroy to tee off.

“I’m probably going to sleep on the floor,” Woods said of his plan for Friday night. “I do that in Europe all the time, so this is nothing new.”

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He insisted he wasn’t joking, that he’s not worried, and that he’s become adept at managing pain since his left knee was first operated on at Stanford in 1994. That knee has been cut open three more times. Now, though, Woods, 36, has a new concern: a tight lower back he was hoping the healing hands in the Tour’s fitness trailer could fix.

“I’m going there right now,” Woods said. “They’re good at what they do, and I’ll be ready by tomorrow.”