DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – “Is Tiger playing?” asked one player after his early round on Friday in Dubai.
No, he wasn’t. About an hour before his tee time at Emirates Golf Club officials announced Woods had withdrawn from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, his second consecutive missed weekend and the seventh time he’s tapped out since 2010, because of back spasms in his lower back.
Woods looked tentative on Thursday on his way to an opening 77 that made a trip to the weekend unlikely. He grimaced crawling out of a bunker early in Round 1 and moved like a man who has endured two back procedures within the last 15 months.
His manager, Mark Steinberg, stressed that the back spasms that cut his week here in the desert short weren’t the same as the nerve pain that led to him missing all of last season, and following his round on Thursday, Woods said his poor play had nothing to do with his oft-injured back.
“I wasn't in pain at all,” he said after his worst round ever in Dubai. “I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn't doing a very good job.”
Any opinions beyond these facts are pure speculation, the kind of background noise that has dominated the Tiger narrative for years now, and Steinberg was hopeful Woods could make his next scheduled start in two weeks in Los Angeles.
Whether this most recent setback is a sign of the times or the beginning of the end may be a lively hot take for those on social media, but only Woods knows within the chambers of his heart what the future may hold.
That’s not to say there’s no room for Friday morning quarterbacking.
After a 15-month hiatus from tour golf, the road back to relevance has been curious, with Woods starting at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, where he missed the cut, followed by a flight, commercial no less, across 12 time zones for this week’s stop in Dubai.
The rigors of such a trek could impact even a healthy player half Woods’ age, never mind a 41-year-old who has spent the last year on a strict pitch count.
“I'm sure there's so many different factors that could play into it. I just couldn't know what causes a back to go into a spasm,” Steinberg said. “Look, he doesn't have the strongest back in the world, right. So it's probably easier to spasm because of the issues he's had. So I'm sure there's a variety of factors that can play into it.”
There’s also something to be said for Woods’ return rotation, which includes Torrey Pines, Dubai, Riviera and PGA National for the Honda Classic later this month. After that, it’s likely he’d play Bay Hill and the Masters.
That’s not exactly a user-friendly return to the fray or anything that could be remotely considered “rehab starts.”
Maybe it would have been best to ease back with a warm week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, but that’s not really Woods’ style. As much as he talks about allowing his game to evolve as he gets older, he’s always played the toughest courses against the game’s deepest fields and no amount of maturity is going to soften that competitive edge.
So the path ahead is also not up for debate.
What remains is rather straight forward, continue to push himself and the reality of his physical restrictions, because the alternative, at least to Woods, is the kind of self-actualization that he’s always sidestepped.
You don’t win 14 majors and redefine the game by allowing yourself to contemplate boundaries, but there will be a point, be it in a month or 10 years from now, that diminishing returns begin to sink in.
Pat Perez knows something of such harsh realities having endured the strangest of seasons in 2016 that included shoulder surgery, seven months of rehabilitation and, finally, a victory in November at the OHL Classic.
Last month at the SBS Tournament of Champions as Perez talked of his own struggles the conversation, as it often does, turned to Woods.
“I know how hard it is to come back and this guy [Woods] has had three back, all his knee [surgeries], it will be interesting,” Perez said. “He’s had so much time off.”
If Woods’ Dubai WD is the new normal, and not simply a bump in the road to recovery, if missed cuts and more withdrawals are the status quo, how long is he willing to deal with mediocrity?
“I hope he plays well, I’ve known the guy my whole life and he’s made us a lot of money,” Perez said. “What I don’t want to see is him struggle, because he won’t do it long. If he plays all [four] tournaments and misses all [four] cuts you won’t see him again. That’s just not in him.”
In recent weeks Woods has conceded he’s considered life after golf, an exercise that included a brand makeover to TGR that was aimed at bringing together all of his business interest, but it’s doubtful he’s looking further than his next start at the moment.
But as another opportunity, another chance to prove there are still traces of greatness in him, comes and goes, that steely resistance to doubt and appraisals of his own limitations are sure to be tested.