AKRON, Ohio – This was an exit unlike any other Tiger Woods has made from Firestone Country Club. The security force was in place, per usual, but not to help him load trophies and clear a parade route. Instead, Woods needed the help to change out of his golf shoes, load his golf clubs, and get into his courtesy car.
His WGC-Bridgestone Invitational — and perhaps his season and Ryder Cup aspirations — were over on the ninth hole of the fourth round. It’s the second time in six tournaments this year that he has withdrawn in the middle of a fourth round.
Driven to the parking lot in a golf cart, Woods grimaced as he lifted himself out, then gingerly stood and tried to stretch his back as he put both hands on the top of an open trunk. After changing footwear, Woods told a media representative from the PGA Tour that the back started hurting him at the second hole.
"It’s just the whole lower back. I don’t know what happened."
It was easy to see how it could have caused him problems, because Woods had what would have to be categorized as a miserable lie. He had driven into thick, wet rough between bunkers down the right side of the 530-yard par 5, but even after taking relief from the plugged lie, Woods was faced with an uphill stance about 247 yards from the hole.
Simply trying to move it forward, Woods took a mighty swipe and fell back into the bunker, having basically hit the shot standing on just his right leg. "I just jarred (the back) and it’s been spasming ever since," he said.
Woods, who was never in contention this week and looked out of sorts from the get-go, even at a place where he’s won eight times, had birdied the opening hole but could manage only a par at the second, arguably the easiest on the course. He then hit a fat approach into the water from just 174 yards at the third to make bogey, bogeyed the sixth after missing the fairway by miles, and doubled the par-3 seventh when he flew his second shot out of a back bunker through the green and 20 yards past the flagstick.
By the time he teed off at the ninth, Woods was 3 over for his round, 4 over for the tournament, and looking like a guy who needed to exit stage left. He did so after driving it wide left at the ninth. He faced a 189-yard shot out of rough, but chose to withdraw instead.
At the forefront were these this questions: Would Woods still tee it up in this week’s PGA Championship? Could he still be in the picture for a Ryder Cup pick?
"I don’t know," he said.
Having had a microdiscectomy March 31, Woods had surprised many by coming back after a three-month layoff to tee it up in the Quicken Loans National. Many had expected him to sit out anywhere from four to six months. He missed the cut at Congressional CC, but pronounced himself ready for the Open Championship and in some ways, he looked it, opening with 69.
But as the action moved on at Royal Liverpool, Woods looked less and less and ready. He followed that 69 with a sloppy 77 in gentle conditions, needing a birdie at the 36th hole just to make the cut. His weekend of 73-75 left him in 69th place, his worst 72-hole performance in a major championship.
Still, at Firestone he never indicated that his health was an issue.
"Everything’s the same," he said following Saturday’s third-round 72 that left him a whopping 15 behind Sergio Garcia. "I just need more reps."
Instead, he’s got more health concerns. Maybe it’s just one of those spasms that he’s talked about in the past, issues he can play through once the back settles down. Or perhaps he re-injured himself and proved that he hadn’t fully recovered from the surgery.
Either way, as he always is, Woods will be the dominant story at Valhalla this week — even if he doesn’t show up to play in the PGA. And he will remain a hot topic in the next few weeks as decision time nears for U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson.