Break might serve Woods in long run

5/12/2011 - Golf Tiger Woods

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods limped gingerly down the 15 concrete steps from the clubhouse parking lot, took a quick left and then limped up eight metal stairs and into the PGA Tour's Player Fitness and Therapy Center.

The shrink wrap on the fitness trailer said it all:

Is Knee Pain Holding You Back?

Knee ... Achilles ... swing -- who knows anymore with Woods? But by the time he withdrew Thursday after nine holes of The Players Championship, the 35-year-old Tiger was walking like a Florida retiree in need of a cane.

Woods shot a stunningly crummy 6-over-par 42 on the front nine of TPC Sawgrass and then called it quits. Tour protocol called for him to return to the Fitness Center (he was thrilled about grinding down, up, down and back up those stairs) and sign an injury withdrawal sheet. Minutes later he was in his white Mercedes and on his way home to Orlando.

But before he left, Woods said the pain began with his first shot of the round, a 3-wood that found the left rough.

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

Or meltdown.

Nobody should be surprised by any of this. Woods' body and swing are a five-golf-cart pileup these days. He said as much Tuesday, when he revealed that he had played just nine practice holes in more than a month and hadn't hit a range ball until Monday.

Woods should have never been here. His four-time surgically repaired left knee and his temperamental left Achilles are becoming a "Grey's Anatomy" episode. And because of the injuries, he can't devote the usual Tiger time on the practice range or play his usual schedule.

"I'm having a hard time walking," he said.

He's having a hard time doing anything these days. His game is gooier than a wad of gum on hot asphalt. I watched him hook three consecutive tee shots on the second hole of his practice round Tuesday. Then he hooked his first shot Thursday. And it got worse.

He bogeyed No. 1. He needed to hole an 18-foot putt on No. 4 for a triple-bogey. He bogeyed No. 5 and later No. 9 to reach 6 over.

Here's how sad it was: His second shot on the par-5 ninth flew through the leaves of a tree behind the green, bounced off an elderly spectator and settled into the grass on a downhill lie. Faced with a difficult pitch, the ball plopped into a bunker a few yards in front of him. He splashed out and the ball settled nearly 25 feet from the pin.

Mercy applause followed from the sympathetic gallery. Think about that: mercy applause for Tiger Woods.

He said a quick goodbye to his playing partners Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer. "Have a good back nine," said Woods. "Play well."

The teenager carrying the threesome scoreboard standard removed Woods' name on the No. 10 tee box.

Woods was never going to win this week. There was the knee issue. The Achilles issue. The lack of playing and practice issue. The short game issue. The putting issue.

But he tried anyway, which counts for something. You can never accuse Woods of not trying to play through pain.

"They said I could play," Woods said of his doctors. "The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously. Obviously it's a big event. I want to come back for it and play and unfortunately I wasn't able to finish."

You wonder if he agreed to enter The Players as a favor to the tour for its hosting the first leg of the Tiger Image Rehab Show in February 2010. If he did, Woods' heart was in the right place, but his game wasn't.

The 42 was the highest nine-hole score he's shot in 14 appearances at The Players. It was only 1 shot off his all-time worst nine-hole performance on tour. Right now, Tiger wouldn't make it past the first round of "Big Break Indian Wells."

Last year, Woods withdrew here during the fourth round because of a neck injury. This time he couldn't make it to the 10th hole.

Five weeks separate Woods from the second major of the year, the U.S. Open at Congressional. Woods lives for the majors, not The Players Championship. He lives for getting in the speed lane and finally passing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career major victories.

Problem is, Woods is stuck at 14 and hasn't won a major since the U.S. Open in 2008. Those are drought-like conditions for Tiger.

He played well last month at Augusta National (T-4), but that's it for top-5 finishes this season for Woods. In fact, he has played only 16 full rounds of stroke play on tour. Hard to stay sharp when there are spider webs on your clubs.

Forget about breaking Nicklaus' record. Woods needs to first break par. And more than anything, he needs to think long and hard about going on the disabled list.

Woods isn't helping himself or his chase of history by playing hurt. He somehow limped to a win at Torrey Pines three years ago at the Open. It isn't going to happen again.

"Give me a few days to see what the docs say and we'll take a look at it," Woods said.

Dr. 42 On The Front said it already: Woods needs to shut it down. The sooner, the better.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.