- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- What's more stunning:
• Semi-old fogey Mark O'Meara shooting a 6-under-par 66 to jet up the Players Championship leaderboard?
• O'Meara's longtime buddy, Tiger Woods, shooting a front-nine 42 and withdrawing because of a combo knee/Achilles injury?
• O'Meara's longtime buddy, Woods, picking up the dinner tab at an expensive steak restaurant a night earlier?
"It's not often he goes to the hip," O'Meara said of notoriously wallet-challenged Woods.
As newsworthy as the dinner-check moment might have been, Woods' departure and O'Meara's 66 are in the same team photo of Thursday first-round headlines. Woods' injury is in the front row, but O'Meara's red numbers are seated right behind Tiger.
"I know you're all shocked," 54-year-old O'Meara said as he met with the media. "Don't worry. I told you I shot 68 here about 2½ weeks ago."
"From the white tees?" asked a reporter, smiling.
O'Meara shook his head. "No love," he said.
Who would have thought Woods' day (and tournament) would end with a 6-over-par WD and O'Meara's day would end with a T-3? But that's what happens when you need only 24 putts to finish the round.
Nobody expected O'Meara, the oldest player in the field this week, to be a factor. Instead, most of the attention was on Woods and his return to tournament golf after a monthlong absence.
The two friends played practice nines Tuesday and Wednesday, then had dinner Wednesday evening. Never did Woods say a peep about his left leg bothering him.
"Sometimes Tiger, even as well as I know him, sometimes it's very difficult to read him -- and I think I know him fairly well," O'Meara said. "I asked him the other day, I said, 'How's the leg?' And he says, 'It's fine.'
"I don't know if it's fine or if he's just telling me it's fine and it's really not that fine. I saw [Woods' swing coach] Sean Foley out there, and I asked him, and he's like, 'You know, his leg is not good.' I mean, he can hit balls, but he's having a hard time walking. So, it's a hard game if he can't walk."
As of early Thursday night, O'Meara hadn't spoken with Woods. He texted Woods after he saw the news of the injury withdrawal.
"He said he's just not doing so well, not feeling so well," O'Meara said.
Without knowing the specifics of the injury, O'Meara said he was concerned about his friend's physical well-being.
"If the limitations that Tiger is facing with his injuries is holding him back, then he needs to get those totally fixed and get back," O'Meara said. "And then he needs to come back and just take little steps to get back because he knows how to win."
Woods is four wins shy of matching Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career major victories. But O'Meara isn't sure Woods remains consumed by catching and surpassing the Golden Bear.
"I think he still wants that, but how much, only he can determine," O'Meara said. "Is the fire burning as bright as it once did? Maybe not. But that's to be expected when you look at the intense pressure that this kid has lived under for the last 20 years of his life."
The unexpected happened Thursday: O'Meara is on the leaderboard, and Woods isn't even on the premises anymore.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
Mark O'Meara's near the lead at The Players Championship. His longtime friend Tiger Woods played only 9 holes Thursday before a WD. Which is more surprising? ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski examines the intriguing comments from the 54-year-old major champion.