Tiger Woods limped off the golf course and into a future that is murkier than ever Thursday when he withdrew with leg injuries after his worst nine holes at the Players Championship.
“I’m having a hard time walking,” he said.
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Woods shot a 42 on the front nine of the TPC Sawgrass, including a triple bogey on the fourth hole when he didn’t clear a water hazard 30 yards in front of him. He constantly walked some 20 yards behind his playing partner, holding his golf club for support, limping noticeably after each hole.
After taking a bogey on the par-5 ninth, he handed his scorecard to PGA Champion Martin Kaymer, then walked back to inform Matt Kuchar that he was leaving early from the Players for the second straight year.
“Tiger looked like he was in pain today,” Kuchar said. “You could tell he was walking quite slowly, quite gingerly. He was just last to get to his ball every time.”
It was his first competition since the Masters, where Woods said he hurt his left knee and Achilles while hitting from the pine straw beneath Eisenhower tree on the 17th hole in the third round. Woods was briefly tied for the lead the next day and finished tied for fourth.
He described it as a “minor injury” when he skipped last week to give his leg time to heal, and said he was “surprised” that it acted up on him at the Players.
“The treatment’s been good,” he said. “It’s been getting better. But it just wasn’t enough.”
From the opening tee shot, he looked as bad as he ever has.
“The knee acted up and then the Achilles followed after that, and then the calf started cramping up,” Woods said. “Everything started getting tight, so it’s just a whole chain reaction.”
Swing coach Sean Foley, who was with Woods on the range Thursday morning, had been with another client when he got to the ninth hole and noticed Woods walking well behind Kaymer and Kuchar.
“That’s all I know. I haven’t talked to him,” Foley said.
Asked how he was on the range, Foley said Woods looked “fantastic.”
“This week I’ve been quite happy that he had that layoff and still looked quite a bit like the weekend at Augusta,” Foley said. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s so much his swing as the walking, you know? It’s the whole thing. You get out of bed, you knows?”
The first hole could not have gone any worse for Woods.
He pulled his opening tee shot into the pine trees, leaving him a stance in the pine straw. Then he came up short of the green, his ball perched at the bottom of a steep bank that force another awkward stance.
“The pine straw didn’t help because my foot slipped, my left foot slipped,” Woods said. “It obviously would have probably felt better if it would have held.”
The rest of his nine holes was not much better, especially at No. 4. He said his knee “grabbed me” on a tee shot that sailed well left into the mounds, and he put his approach into the water. Then came a shocker of a shot -- after taking a drop, his short pitch to a back pin hit the bulkhead and went back into the water. He had to make a 20-foot putt for triple bogey.
Even more remarkable -- Woods didn’t hit a single green from his five tee shots that found the fairway.
“Nobody really knows how much pain he was in,” Kaymer said. “Of course, we hope that he gets well soon, that he gets out here again. It would have been nice to play another 27 with him. And he shot 6 over, but hopefully he can recover soon so he can play great golf again.”
The 42 was three shots higher than his previous worst 9-hole score at the TPC Sawgrass. His worst 9-hole score on the PGA Tour was a 43 on four occasions, the most recent on the back nine at Quail Hollow last year when he missed the cut.
This is the second straight year Woods has withdrawn in the middle of the round at the Players. He stopped on the seventh hole of the final round last year with what turned out to be a neck injury.
Woods is 35 and already has had four operations on his left knee. He said doctors told him he could play this week. He said he practiced for the first time since the Masters on Monday, and played golf for the first time on Tuesday -- nine holes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously,” Woods said. “It’s a big event. I wanted to come back for it and play, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish.”
Woods said the two shots into the water on the fourth was more related to a bad swing than his leg, although the rest of the round it was clear something was wrong. From the middle of fairways, he came up well to the left on the fifth and the seventh holes, and another time came up some 15 yards short of his target on the sixth.
Woods got into his white Mercedes and left the TPC Sawgrass, not knowing what his next move would be.
“I just finished nine holes,” he said. “Give me a few days to see what the docs say, and we’ll take a look at it.”
That pursuit of the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus looks further away with each setback. Woods remains at 14 from his U.S. Open title at Torrey Pines in 2008, which he won before having reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
Asked if he had any worries, Woods replied, “I know I have, but it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.”