PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods limped off the golf course and into an uncertain future.
His return at The Players Championship from what he had described as a “minor injury” lasted only nine holes Thursday. Woods withdrew because of pain in his left knee and Achilles, but not before taking 42 shots for his worst nine-hole score on the TPC Sawgrass course.
“I’m having a hard time walking,” he said.
Woods flexed his left knee after hitting tee shots. He took baby steps to climb out of a bunker. He walked with a golf club for support, lagging a football field behind his playing partners with a noticeable limp. His quickest steps were to catch up to Martin Kaymer on the way to the 10th tee to tell him he was done.
Before driving off in a white Mercedes, Woods ducked into a fitness trailer with a sign painted on the side that said, “Is knee pain holding you back?”
The more relevant question is where Woods goes from here.
The crisis in his personal life that led to divorce last summer no longer appears to be the biggest obstacle in regaining his golf game or pursuing Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.
It’s his health.
Woods already has gone through four surgeries on his left knee. Now he has an Achilles problem, too. He has gone 18 months since his last win, three years without adding to his 14 majors, and he has no idea when he will be fit enough to compete again.
It started on the first hole, a 3-wood that “just didn’t feel good” and sailed well to the left into the pine trees. His left foot slipped on the pine straw — similar to the shot on the 17th hole at Augusta National in the third round that caused this latest injury — and he wound up on the side of a mound short of the green, another awkward stance.
“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.”
Asked if he should have walked off the course earlier, Woods replied, “Probably.”
He stopped on the seventh hole of the fourth round at The Players last year with what turned out to be a minor neck injury. This time he made it only to the ninth hole of the first round. From the fairway, he blasted a 5-wood so far over the green that it landed beyond a bunker, under a tree. He flubbed his chip into the bunker, blasted out to 25 feet and made another bogey.
“Tiger looked like he was in pain today,” said Matt Kuchar, the third in their group. “You could tell he was walking quite slowly, quite gingerly. He was last to get to his ball every time. … Probably by the second hole, you could tell that walk wasn’t normal. And I think by the third hole, started seeing some grimacing.”
Kaymer, who opened with a 67 as he tries to return to No. 1 in the world, was playing with Woods for only the second time.
“Nobody really knows how much pain he was in,” Kaymer said. “He was walking really slowly. He was walking behind us. But I didn’t know that it was because of pain, or I just thought that he walks a little slower than me.”
Woods had not played since the Masters, when he said he hurt his knee and Achilles after hitting from the pine straw beneath Eisenhower Tree in the third round. Woods briefly tied for the lead the next day and finished tied for fourth.
He described it as a minor injury two weeks ago when saying that he would skip the Wells Fargo Championship last week, and his coach, Sean Foley, said he had been walking in a protective boot.
Woods did not practice after the Masters until Monday. He did not play golf until Tuesday at Sawgrass — nine holes, then another nine holes on Wednesday. It was not ideal preparation on a course he does not particularly enjoy.
Foley was with Woods on the practice range Thursday morning and said he looked fine. The coach then went to watch two other clients, and while passing by on the ninth hole noticed that Woods was walking some 40 yards behind the others.
“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, who knows?”
Off the tee, Woods looked fine. He hit his driver 40 yards by Kaymer and Kuchar on No. 9, and he was 30 yards past Kaymer on No. 5. Of the five times in seven holes that Woods hit the fairway, however, he never once hit the green.
His only birdie putt came on the par-3 third, and he missed that from 15 feet.
On the next hole, he pulled his tee shot into the mounds left of the fairway, then said, “No!” when his next shot found the water. After taking a penalty drop some 30 yards short of the hazard, Woods’ pitch shot to a back pin hit the bulkhead and went back into the pond. He had to make a 20-foot putt for triple bogey.
Asked if the triple bogey was related to his knee, Woods said, “The tee shot was. It grabbed me on the tee shot there. But the pitch shots weren’t. Those were just bad pitch shots. Those were just awful.”
Woods typically would next play the Memorial in three weeks, with the U.S. Open at Congressional — a course on which he won two years ago at his AT&T National — starting June 15.
Woods has no idea when he can return.
“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.”
For Woods, however, this is becoming an old story.
“He’s got to get healthy,” Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III said. “He obviously played good at the Masters when he was healthy. Whatever it is, he should stay away until he’s feeling better.”
The 42 was three shots higher than his previous worst nine-hole score at the TPC Sawgrass. His worst nine-hole score on the PGA Tour was a 43 on four occasions, most recently on the back nine at Quail Hollow last year when he missed the cut.
Woods said doctors told him he could play this week.
“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.”
His pursuit of Nicklaus looks further away with each setback. Woods remains at 14 majors, none since his U.S. Open title at Torrey Pines in 2008, when he went 91 holes over five days before having reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
He said neither the pain nor the injury was as bad Thursday.
“No, no, my leg was broken there,” Woods said. “So no, not quite that bad.”
Then again, this isn’t a major. Woods had said earlier that he would not have skipped Quail Hollow last week had it been a major. And he still has three majors ahead of him over the next three months.
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.”