Tiger’s health — and his future in golf — appear as fragile as ever

 

Remember when Tiger Woods limped away from Torrey Pines with the US Open trophy?

Those were simpler times with far more straightforward storylines. He was like a gunslinger in an old Western; the last man standing in a shootout who heroically won his 14th major on just one good leg.

He was, in the summer of 2008, a champion fulfilling his destiny, to become G.O.A.T.

On Thursday, Woods limped off Torrey Pines and into the same parking lot as he did almost seven years ago. But that’s where the similarities ended.

He’d played 11 holes at the Farmers Insurance Open on the easier North course, none of them particularly well. This time there was no adulation, just more questions in what is becoming an almost unprecedented public deconstruction of a sporting hero.

When Woods began grimacing early in his opening round at the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday, eyes began to roll. The whispers within the golf fraternity grew louder: He’s playing badly so he’s going to withdraw.

Maybe that’s unfair — he did have back surgery last year, after all —€“ but Woods repeatedly has assured us that his back is great and that he’s finally healthy.

Obviously, that’s not true. Obviously, he’s still as fragile as he’s ever been.

His back got tight in between warm-ups because of the usual fog delays on the coast here. He’s not the first golfer to get tight in the cold. But how many can’t recover?

"It just never loosened back up again," Woods said. "And when we went back out, it got progressively tighter.

"It’s frustrating that it started shutting down like that. I got cold and everything started deactivating again."

And then the line that brought smirks.

"It’s just my glutes are shutting off," he said. "I tried to activate my glutes as best I could, in between, but they never stayed activated."

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It was such a tortured, pseudo-scientific explanation that it’s certain to make him, excuse the pun, the butt of a lot of bad jokes.

But that seems to be his fate these days. His greatest talent is in damaging himself.

Last week, he shot 82 — his worst round as a pro — in Phoenix and now comes the third withdrawal in his past eight tournaments. The champion who used to own Sunday afternoons has played on Sunday only twice in the past 12 months.

The question is where does he go from here?

It’s true Woods needs to play golf but he doesn’t need to play this kind of golf. It can’t be good for his psyche to publicly struggle with chipping and pitching, as he did again on Thursday. It was torturous to watch him butcher his 11th hole of the day — a short par-4, which required just a pitch shot for a second from the right rough.

Woods’ first pitch was so yippy that he bladed the ball over not just the green but also the galleries on the other side. His next attempt at a flop was chunked, and then came the half-skulled third that left him with a two-putt for double-bogey.

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And then there are the wayward drives, most of them wide right. Woods hit just one of nine fairways on Thursday. To boot, the irons were sloppy and it’s not like the putter saves him, like it once did.

It’s unlikely he will play either at Riviera — imagine his chipping struggles on that unforgiving kikuyu grass —€“ or Pebble Beach. He’s simply not ready for the big stage.

He likely will play next at the Honda Classic in Florida, which starts Feb. 26, but that course is hardly ideal for Woods given the number of water hazards.

And there will be more pressure on him to play well there because it will be his last chance to qualify for the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship at Doral.

If he doesn’t play Doral, Woods could be looking at just one more tournament — at the usually friendly confines of Bay Hill — before the Masters.

He insists he wants to be ready for the Masters, but frankly, he is in denial. His body, his mind and his game are far from ready.