New season, same old story with Tiger Woods. Only it’s no longer a happy tale. For the third time in his last eight PGA Tour events, Tiger Woods got into a cart in the middle of his round and was driven to the parking lot because of back pain. Most troubling about Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open was he spoke only a week ago of feeling “great” physically, and this was only his second event of the year.
He blamed this one on the weather, which caused his “glutes” to shut off.
Woods walked off the course after 11 holes on the North Course at Torrey Pines, citing tightness in his lower back from standing around for more than an hour in the cool Pacific air during a fog delay in the morning. He never looked comfortable, and Billy Horschel noticed it right away. Woods was reaching for his back at the turn. Horschel tried to help by picking up the tee for Woods on their 10th hole and the ball from the cup when Woods made birdie.
“I was ready to go,” Woods said. “I had a good warmup session the first time around. Then we stood out here and I got cold, and everything started deactivating again. And it’s frustrating that I just can’t stay activated. That’s just kind of the way it is.”
Woods now has gone 12 straight PGA Tour events without a top 10, dating to his runner-up finish in The Barclays in 2013 when back pain dropped him to his knees. This was his first round since a career-high 82 last week in the Phoenix Open to tie for last with a club pro and miss the cut by 12 shots.
“It’s tough to see a guy I look up to, a guy I consider a friend, to have issues with spasms,” Horschel said. “It’s tough to see him go, but he was in quite a bit of pain.”
Nicholas Thompson had an 8-under 64 on the North Course and had a one-shot lead over Michael Thompson when play was suspended by darkness. Brooks Koepka, coming off his victory in the Phoenix Open, had a 66 on the North. The best score on the tougher South Course belonged to Jhonnatan Vegas, who shot 67.
Dustin Johnson, playing for the first time since his six-month leave for “personal challenges,” holed out for eagle on No. 4 on the South Course as his lone highlight. He had five bogeys and was 2 over with one hole remaining.
But this day was all about Woods, which used to be typical at Torrey Pines because he has won the tournament seven times. Thursday was different. Several players came out of the scoring area and said, “What happened to Tiger?”
“It’s just my glutes are shutting off,” Woods said, sound more like a physical therapist than a 14-time major champion. “Then they don’t activate and then, hence, it goes into my lower back. So I tried to activate my glutes as best I could in between, but they never stayed activated.”
It has become a troubling trend for Woods. In his last six tournaments since back surgery last March, he has missed the cut three times, withdrawn twice and finished 69th in the British Open, his lowest 72-hole finish in a major.
“It’s just tough not seeing him have his best, whether it’s with his game or with his health,” said Rickie Fowler, who played in the group with him.
Woods was 2-over par through 11 holes and in a tie for 130th when he withdrew.
He will fall to his worst world ranking since before he won his first PGA Tour event as a 20-year-old in 1996, and he most likely will not qualify for a World Golf Championship for only the second time in his career. Woods is not expected to play again until the Honda Classic in three weeks. Doral is the following week. He did not indicate earlier in the week that he would add tournaments to his schedule ahead of the Masters, which is April 9-12.
The front nine at Torrey Pines was more of the same kind of golf he showed in the Phoenix Open last week, when he missed the cut by 12 shots with a short game that was shocking. On his first hole, the par-4 10th, Woods short-sided himself right of the green and he bladed his chip some 35 feet beyond the hole for a bogey.
He was in trouble again on the next hole, facing the same chip, and this time struck it perfectly. He chipped in to save par.
From there, it was a mixed bag of poor tee shots (he hit only one fairway) and poor iron shots. His tee shot on the par-3 12th wound up on a front tee box at the 13th hole. He missed the green long and right from the 13th fairway.
Woods made a 6-foot birdie on the 16th and he made birdie on the par-5 first hole. The last hole he completed was the most telling.
Horschel and Woods were in the right rough, about 70 yards short of the green. Horschel hit to about 12 feet on the collar of the green behind the hole. Woods went about a yard from a tee box on the next hole, the shot sailing over the heads of the gallery and down a slope. From there, he duffed his flop shot halfway up the hill, hit the next one too hard about 15 feet past the cup and two-putted for double bogey.
Woods won five times in 2013 and was PGA Tour player of the year. He has never looked further from the elite in golf as he does now. Woods took four months off to let his back fully heal and to regain his strength. On Thursday, he headed home early from Torrey Pines to a future as mysterious as fog.