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Tiger Woods exits Players Championship early, leaving questions

He struggles to walk because of pain in his knee and Achilles tendon and then withdraws. It's unknown whether he could be ready for U.S. Open in five weeks, much less return to championship form soon.

May 12, 2011|By Jeff Shain and Diane Pucin
  • Tiger Woods leaves the course after withdrawing from play during the first round of the Players Championship on Thursday.
Tiger Woods leaves the course after withdrawing from play during the first… (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images )

Tiger Woods limped off a golf course Thursday, having recorded a nine-hole score of six-over 42 at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and what followed him were questions.

The biggest one: Is he ever going to win big golf tournaments again?

And, in the short term: Could he possibly be ready for the U.S. Open in five weeks?

Woods, 35, surrendered to pain in his knee and Achilles' tendon and for the second straight year was unable to finish the tournament, which is considered just a notch below the four majors of golf.

Last year, neck pain forced Woods to withdraw after six holes of the final round, Woods' first injury withdrawal as a professional.

Thursday's DNF — did not finish — was his second. "I'm having a hard time walking," Woods said after his withdrawal.

At times, Woods was more than a minute behind playing partners Martin Kaymer and Matt Kuchar and the caddies in walking from the tee to their second shots. After his tee shot at the par-three eighth hole, he followed the ball's flight from a flamingo stance — his left foot lifted completely off the ground.

"You could tell," Kuchar said. "That walk wasn't normal, and by the third hole we started seeing some grimacing.… He definitely was walking much slower than us."

Woods said his "knee acted up, and then the Achilles' followed after that and then the calf started cramping up. Everything started getting tight, so it's just a whole chain reaction."

Woods bogeyed No. 1 after his opening drive landed near trees left of the fairway and he slipped hitting his second shot off pine straw. He then missed a birdie opportunity when he chunked a greenside chip shot on the par-five second hole.

He missed the fairway again on No. 4, and his second shot found water left of the green — as did his ensuing wedge after he took a penalty stroke. It took an 18-footer to make triple bogey.

Mark O'Meara, who is two shots behind leader Nick Watney after the first round, said he had dinner with Woods on Wednesday night and that Woods didn't give away any details of his physical condition.

"Even as well as I know him, sometimes it's very difficult to read him," O'Meara said. "I think I know him fairly well. I asked him the other day … 'How's the leg?' and he says, 'It's fine.' "

O'Meara said he also spoke with Sean Foley, Woods' swing coach, who he said told him: " 'You know, his leg is not good. He can hit balls but he's having a hard time walking.' So, it's a hard game to play if he can't walk."

Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA player who is an analyst for the Golf Channel, said Woods should shut down his game for the rest of this season.

"He should stop, go home, get healthy, get his body back in shape, his mind back in shape," Chamblee said. "He's not over what transpired last year.

"If he waited until next year, he's still only 36. He's physically got to get where he's not worried about his body."

Woods suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament at the Masters in April when he had to hit from pine straw at the 17th hole in the third round.

The former world No. 1 had not played since then and only started hitting balls again Monday. Now ranked No. 8 in the world, Woods hasn't won since the 2009 Australian Masters, a drought of 18 months.

Woods said doctors had cleared him to play this week. "The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously," he said. "But this is a big event. I wanted to come back for it."

Richard Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said it was too early to discount Woods' comeback from both physical issues and the personal problems that became public after Thanksgiving 2009.

"Sports history is filled with failure and triumphant returns," Burton said. "While Tiger's withdrawal will linger with the media and PGA, Tiger is too much of a competitor not to review what needs to change and move toward that outcome.

"Tiger will always provide a glowing memory of having been the most electrifying golfer of his generation. It's impossible to forget Tiger at his best, and that's where most fans will freeze him. When he thaws out, the media, fans and sponsors will be waiting."

The question impossible to answer is, how long will the wait be?

Shain reported from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Pucin reported from Lake Tahoe, Nev.

jshain@tribune.com

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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