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AKRON, Ohio -- Tiger Woods tried to change out of his golf shoes, grimacing at the slightest movement, holding himself up against the back of his courtesy car and doing all he could to catch his breath.
It was the look of a man in considerable pain -- shame on those who suggest he was faking it -- and it looked worse than when he withdrew from the Honda Classic in March and limped off the final green at Doral a week later.
The return from back surgery ended nine rounds and eight-plus holes into his comeback, the promise of continued improvement and maybe even a Ryder Cup spot dashed following a 315-yard drive at Firestone Country Club's ninth hole Sunday.
Woods said he first noticed discomfort after an awkward bunker shot on the second hole, his momentum carrying him back down a steep slope -- sort of like stepping off a curb and not realizing the drop. That can send a jolt through the body, and it apparently happened to Woods.
Maybe it is a different injury than the one that resulted in microdiscectomy surgery March 31 to alleviate a pinched nerve in his back. Perhaps he can be treated and nurtured back to health in time for this week's PGA Championship. Or it could be related to the surgery, with another long layoff ahead.
It's all too early to tell, but it is certainly fair to wonder at this point if it is even wise for him to play at all the rest of this year.
Woods was seemingly ahead of schedule, surprising all when he returned in June to the Quicken Loans National at Congressional. That he shot 74-75 to miss the cut didn't matter. He was back and not in pain.
Then it was on to the Open Championship followed by the WGC-Bridgestone, at venues he loved and places he excelled. Woods did himself no favors by refusing to lower expectations, but a realist certainly recognized that he was going to need time to regain the form that sent him to five victories on the PGA Tour a year ago.
After all, Thursday marked the four-month mark from when he had surgery.
|Tiger Woods said he injured himself after hitting this shot on the second hole Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.|
Given this latest development, there will be many who surmise he returned too soon. In May, when Woods appeared in public for the first time since surgery at the Quicken Loans media day, he maintained that he was taking it slow and just "trying to focus on getting stronger."
Woods insisted that he would not come back until his advisers said he was ready, and it was just two days ago that he admitted doctors would not allow him to a hit a driver until just prior to committing to the Quicken Loans tournament on June 20.
On Friday, I asked Woods if he had talked to Graham DeLaet, a PGA Tour player who had the same procedure in 2011. DeLaet was in agony before the surgery, didn't return for five months, played three tournaments and then decided he wasn't ready. He played one more in September that year before shutting it down again.
DeLaet is six years younger than Woods, so it makes you wonder. Woods had not spoken to him but did chat with another golfer, Jason Bohn, who had the surgery; Woods said it helped him to keep it all in perspective.
"That's one of the things that I've had to keep reminding myself, especially during practice sessions," he said. "Hey, this is supposed to be my second tournament back, not my third. Everything's going pretty good. I've gotten a little bit better, and the good news is I'm still getting stronger.
"I've still got a long way to go as far as my strength and explosiveness compared to what I'm used to feeling, but all that's coming around."
On Saturday, there was another question about how he felt physically.
"Everything's the same. I just need more reps," Woods said. "Still continue to stay at it because I'm actually getting better the more rounds I'm playing. I'm actually getting my feel back."
At the Open two weeks ago and again this week, Woods was asked about his health, his recovery and how much practicing he could do. Although he acknowledged that he was being careful, he also said he had no restrictions.
But he didn't apply that same caution to his expectations.
"If you don't have that attitude that you're going to win, why compete?" he said.
That is simply how Woods is wound. Perhaps it is among the reasons why he has been such a great champion, a winner of 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour titles. His mind works differently. He doesn't allow for excuses.
It's admirable but not necessarily realistic. Woods and the world should have viewed these tournaments like a baseball player would a minor league rehab assignment. Winning is not important. It's competing, getting back inside the ropes and working out the issues in the game.
None of this is to say Woods' latest injury wouldn't have happened anyway. The same painful exit might have occurred even if there were no previous issues. Back problems are a way of life in golf. The shot Woods tried to hit on the second hole is not one anybody would practice.
So it is impossible to know for sure.
What we do know is that was a tough scene to witness on Sunday and a brutal one for Woods to endure -- again.
"It didn't look good," said longtime rival Phil Mickelson, who saw Woods on the ninth hole from the 11th fairway. "It looked like he was really in pain. I hope he's OK. I mean, I hope he's able to play next week. I hope it's a muscle and nothing serious because I'm really looking forward to playing with him.
"As much as I love playing with him, playing against him, trying to beat him, we all want him in the field. We all want him back. I just hope he's OK."
Woods didn't look OK Sunday afternoon, the unfortunate story of his year.