SAN DIEGO – Animosity toward success is a natural part of the sport DNA and perennial winners are rarely universally adored – think the 2000 New York Yankees or 2015 New England Patriots.
Tiger Woods was not immune to this phenomenon when he was winning everything with a trophy and closing in on Jack Nicklaus’ all-time majors mark like a coastal express headed for Los Angeles. While he enjoyed plenty of fan support, there were those who would annually question if golf wouldn’t be better off if there were more parity.
But like all dynasties, there comes a time of diminishing returns, when rancor gives way to reality. Times like Thursday at Torrey Pines as Woods slowly, gingerly made his way up the steep second fairway.
He’d just sent another drive off line, this time to the right which makes sense because he missed his drive on the previous hole to the left, and he was grimacing his way off the tee, some 20 yards behind his playing companions for the day, Billy Horschel and Rickie Fowler.
The hushed tone of stunned fans was broken only by a single sympathetic comment from a member of his dwindling gallery: “Man, it’s sad when a guy’s career is ended by an injury.”
It’s actually been a litany of injuries that have dogged Woods, and the ailing back that sent him packing is nothing new.
He would tee off at the par-3 third hole, pushing his iron shot to some 45 feet before flipping his ball mark to caddie Joe LaCava and heading for the parking lot to post his ninth career withdrawal on the PGA Tour.
It’s a familiar scene, repeated in recent years from Firestone in Ohio to TPC Sawgrass and Doral in Florida. The difference now is how the hordes who have tracked his every move sense a foreboding future for the former world No. 1.
“It’s frustrating that it started shutting down like that,” said Woods, who was 2 over par when he walked off the course. “I was ready to go. I had a good warm-up session the first time around. Then we stood out here and I got cold, and everything started deactivating again.”
But if a 2 1/2-hour fog delay was the culprit on Day 1 it felt more like an apropos backdrop to what has become a baffling standard in recent years.
Cold and coming off his worst round on the PGA Tour as a professional last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (82), Woods did little to build confidence or dispel an undercurrent of concern that he’s been beset by the chipping yips.
Woods’ chipping woes surfaced early on Day 1, with the seven-time Farmers Insurance Open winner short-siding himself at his opening hole (No. 10 on the North Course) and roping his chip some 35 feet past the hole for an early bogey.
It marked the fifth time in Woods’ last six starts he began a week on the wrong side of the ledger and further solidified what some have started referring to as “yip-ageddon.”
“I’m not sure he has the yips, but if I hear ‘release point’ one more time I’d suggest he change the vocabulary,” said one longtime Tour swing coach, referring to Woods’ take on his short-game problems.
But as concerning as the yips may be, a recurring back injury following surgery last spring is a much greater fear.
Although it’s far too early in the Chris Como era, not to mention the season, to claim defeat, there would be little Woods could do from the disabled list to change his competitive fortunes. It’s likely why he seemed so upbeat late last year at the Hero World Challenge when he went on the record saying he’d followed all of his “protocols” and was cleared for duty. But it’s never that easy when it comes to Woods. Not now.
“This is ... usually [I] don’t have to wait like this,” Woods said when asked if Thursday’s ailment was the same condition he had surgically repaired last year. “When I’m at home practicing I keep going, keep going. This is different.”
Fred Couples can relate. Throughout his career Couples has been beset by back injuries. When he showed up on Wednesday to walk the pro-am round with Wood, one got the impression it was less about paying off Super Bowl bets, which Freddie said was his reason for being at Torrey Pines, and more about giving his friend some moral support.
“He did have surgery. I’ve never had back surgery, but I know how it feels. He’s got a lot of speed and he’s hitting it a mile but he really hasn’t played much golf in a year and I’m not sure how good anyone would be after that,” Couples said. “I can speak for a back and a lot of things feel differently.”
“Differently” certainly covers another withdrawal for Woods. It was, after all, on these same seaside hills seven years ago that Woods penned what is arguably the greatest chapter of his legendary career, winning a U.S. Open on one leg in overtime.
The guy who fought through that pain is nowhere near throwing in the proverbial towel. Still, there was no ignoring the fact that on Thursday he couldn’t make it 12 holes on a bad back and the dramatically declining juxtaposition wasn’t lost on anyone.