The comeback that began with so much promise two months ago in the Bahamas has disintegrated into disappointment, with Tiger Woods again having to take a seat on golf’s sideline.
While the elite level he so desperately wants to be part of again moves on without him, Woods is left to wait for back spasms to subside as more opportunities to hone his skills and test his game are lost.
When Woods withdrew from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic a week ago, agent Mark Steinberg said he wasn’t sure if Woods would miss the two upcoming tournaments. But the 14-time major champion announced Friday that he would be skipping both.
But playing next week’s Genesis Open at Riviera — where Woods was scheduled to return for the first time in 11 years — followed by the Honda Classic would have required something in short supply: practice.
Woods continues to face a daunting task in his return from multiple back surgeries in 2015. And he seemingly had passed a big test when he played a week’s worth of golf at the Hero World Challenge without pain, without injury and being fully engaged.
The hope then was that he could get on a consistent practice schedule, one that was sensitive to a bad back but also would allow him to get his game in shape.
Woods did not look sharp two weeks ago at Torrey Pines, which makes you wonder about how much he was actually able to practice leading up to his first official PGA Tour event in 17 months.
And then he looked as if he was hurting in Dubai before withdrawing before the second round because of back spasms. Woods said those back spasms have continued, and if he’s not been able to get back to practicing this week, there was no sense trying to play at Riviera, where the rough is brutal and where rainy, chilly conditions await.
Pulling out of the Honda a week later sounds another alarm: It suggests Woods and his team either do not believe his back will be better by then or — even if it is — he won’t have enough time to properly prepare.
And that is always what is lost in these discussions.
Nobody knows what is happening behind the scenes. How much work, even when healthy, is Woods able to put in? Can he practice enough to be competitive?
He seemingly did all the right things in not giving in to temptation and returning to competition too soon in 2016. He looked healthy and strong at the Hero World Challenge, where he led the field in birdies and seemed poised to build on a positive week.
Now the questions abound again.
Woods did himself no favors at Torrey Pines and again in Dubai when he suggested he was simply trying to peak for the Masters.
“I won’t be playing a high number of events,” Woods said on Feb. 1. “I’ve got to save my body and be ready to peak four times a year. One of the reasons why I’m playing four out of five here (is) to get more competitive rounds so that come the first full week in April, I’ll have more rounds under my belt and know what it feels like to be ready.”
Even if everything had gone to plan, Woods would have had all of six tournaments under his belt heading to Augusta National — after more than a year off. To think about contending there was not realistic.
And in retrospect, it probably wasn’t smart to play in the Middle East, where a long plane ride — even in luxurious comfort — was not going to be ideal for a bad back — with Woods even acknowledging he was unsure how it would play out.
Woods inexplicably said after a first-round, birdie-free 77 that he “was not in pain,” when it clearly appeared he was hurting, at least through the first nine holes. And then Steinberg said after the withdrawal that “it’s not the nerve pain that’s kept him out for so long. He says it’s a back spasm and just can’t get the spasm to calm down.”
Whether it’s related to the nerve pain or not, it’s still the back — which has been surgically repaired three times and is still bothering Woods enough that he will skip his foundation’s tournament as well as the event that is just miles from his South Florida home.
The good news is Woods is not pushing it. He’ll now have three weeks off completely from competitive golf (he is not eligible for the WGC-Mexico Championship), allowing for recuperation time.
Whether he tees it up next at the Valspar Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Shell Houston Open, the Masters — none of it really matters if he’s not fit enough to practice.
And so the comeback is on hold. Again.