AKRON, Ohio – Like so many times on so many Sunday afternoons before, a security-driven golf cart pulled up to the parking spot in the player lot closest to the Firestone South Course, the one with “TIGER WOODS” etched on a placard attached to a fence.
Unlike those other occasions, this was not the culmination of a victory tour, the champion being whisked away with a toothy smile across his face.
No, the look on Woods’ face this time was a mixture of pain and worry. He gingerly stepped from the cart and reluctantly placed his left foot on the back bumper of his Cadillac Escalade courtesy car. Noticeably blanching throughout, he untied one shoe, then the other. He carefully slipped into a pair of sneakers and gave a brief interview to a PGA Tour official.
“It happened on the second hole,” he explained.
Anyone who knows his recent history and witnessed Woods attempting to play eight-and-a-half holes before withdrawing from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational understands exactly what “it” is.
Woods underwent microdiscectomy surgery on his lower back just over four months ago. This was his third tournament appearance since, following what was essentially a rehab start at the Quicken Loans National and a 69th-place finish at the Open Championship that was disappointing yet still provided reason for optimism.
“Most of the people I talked to who have had the procedure have no idea how I'm even back here playing,” he proudly stated earlier this week. “They just can't understand that.”
That self-satisfaction was washed away on Sunday.
With a mighty lash at his ball buried in the rough just on top of a fairway bunker on the second hole, Woods turned an awkward swing into a painful result. He spun out of the shot, his left foot flailing into the air, then slid back into the bunker, his momentum carrying him out the other side.
Somewhere in this sequence, that surgically repaired back became wrenched once again.
“I just jarred it,” he told the official, “and it's been spasming ever since.”
It’s no secret that the 79-time PGA Tour winner and 14-time major champion is on the back nine of his professional career, but he figuratively moved to the next tee with this latest withdrawal.
Along with the pain comes criticism: Did he come back too soon? Along with the worry comes doubt: Will he ever regain the form that made him such a polarizing star?
Those questions will be batted around long after the next time we watch Woods return to competition, which might not be anytime soon.
Even in the unlikely scenario that he receives a quick fix for the injury and decides to tee it up at Valhalla Golf Club, it’s inconceivable to believe that he could contend for a 15th major title.
Well before the back issue resurfaced, Woods’ opening scores were an ascending 68-71-72 that left him far off the first page of the leaderboard. Following the injury recurrence, his play resembled that of an 18-handicap.
His tee shot on the par-3 fifth hole came up 65 yards short. His recovery shot on the sixth landed next to a beer tent. His greenside bunker shot on the seventh was bladed back into the fairway.
Prior to this round, most discussions about Woods’ game were centered around his push to make the FedEx Cup playoffs and whether he’d be added to the Ryder Cup roster. All of those thoughts are fleeting now, all of that short-term doubt unraveling into big-picture skepticism.
There exist cogent arguments for each side of the debate.
Those who wish to write him off should recall last year’s Barclays, when he suffered back spasms so debilitating that they brought him to his knees. Still, he finished in second place and competed in five more tournaments before the end of the year.
Conversely, those who wish to proclaim this just a minor setback in his road to resurrected dominance should recognize that the 38-year-old hasn’t played an injury-free season since his last major championship victory six years ago.
The only thing for certain is that a career which was once the closest we’ve seen to supremacy in the game’s history is now drowning in ambiguity.
After the injury and the withdrawal and painful untying of his shoes, Woods was asked whether he would still compete in this week’s upcoming PGA Championship.
“I don't know,” he solemnly offered. “Just trying to get out of here.”
He then shuffled into the Escalade’s passenger seat, removed his hat and put on a pair of sunglasses. His caddie, Joe LaCava, backed up, then sped out of the parking lot and toward the nearest airport.
They took with them pain and worry and, most of all, continuing doubt about what comes next.