Commentary

For Tiger Woods, risk was too great

Updated: March 3, 2014, 3:37 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The chatter started prior to the white shuttle van making its way to the PGA National parking lot. It continued as caddie Joe LaCava hopped in the driver's seat of the SUV and drove Tiger Woods away Sunday, his work incomplete.

Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic with back spasms. It didn't take long for the all-knowing social media zealots to begin declaring that Woods had given up because his score was poor, that he surely would have kept going if he were in contention.

So how's this for some conjecture?

Woods likely would have stuck around had there been a chance to win. That's not exactly a reach. If there is any way it's physically possible, of course you hang in there and do all you can to tough it out with the trophy in sight.

But there was not going to be any prize-giving ceremony for Woods on Sunday.

He was 5 over par for his round, and it is quite possible the reason for the lousy score was a result of the sore back. Playing partner Luke Guthrie noticed something was amiss. He reasoned that Woods' poorly struck tee shot on the third hole likely was due to the pain -- or to the flinching you might reflexively do to avoid it.

So why risk further problems?

Back problems are tricky. Former Open Championship winner Louis Oosthuizen, for example, has had issues for the past year and missed two major championships in 2013. He withdrew from the Honda Classic before it started after a nice run at the WGC-Match Play Championship.

So if you're Woods, why take a chance? Those final five holes at PGA National on Sunday were not going to play any role in him winning this week at Doral, or in two weeks at Bay Hill, or next month at Augusta National. They were meaningless, unless you feel it is imperative to quiet the doubters who will say you quit and run the risk of inflicting further physical and emotional damage.

Only Woods knows how he felt, and he clearly believed it was better to be cautious. Two years ago, there was a similar situation when he left after 12 holes during the final round at Doral, when his Achilles acted up. The year prior, knee and Achilles injuries caused him to miss four months. Woods, usually stubborn about such things, decided it was best not to take any chances; two weeks later he won at Bay Hill.

This is not to suggest that Woods is a week or two away from winning. But it is quite possible this was a precautionary move and we'll see him at Doral later this week, perhaps not 100 percent, but in a better place than Woods would have been had he continued.

"Everybody plays hurt," said Jack Nicklaus, 74, who happened to be at PGA National on Sunday and had a scheduled meeting with reporters that occurred a short time after Woods withdrew. "All these guys are hurt at some time. In every sport they do that.

"When you're playing hurt, there's a level where you can play or you can't play, whether it's a sustained thing or an acute thing. If it's sustained, then you start adjusting your golf swing and so forth to accommodate it. That's when I think it's time to get away from it. There's when you cause yourself a lot of permanent damage."

Nicklaus withdrew from just two tournaments in his PGA Tour career. And he possesses one of the most underrated streaks in the game: From the 1962 Masters through the 1998 U.S. Open, he never missed a major championship. That's 146 straight over 36 years.

Woods has not been so fortunate. He has missed four major championships due to injury in the past six years, and his quest to catch Nicklaus' career mark of 18 professional majors becomes monumental when knee, Achilles and now back problems are thrown into the chase. At age 38, now in his 18th year as a pro, it is fair to wonder if these issues will thwart the ability to develop a repeating-under-pressure golf swing.

In August, Woods was felled by the very spasms he said plagued him on Sunday. It was during the final round of the Barclays, and he dropped to his knees after playing an approach shot on the back nine. Woods kept going and eventually finished second to Adam Scott.

But at what price? Woods was not the same through the remainder of the PGA Tour season. He tied for 65th the following week at the Deutsche Bank Championship. After a week off, he tied for 11th at the BMW Championship, but there was no rest prior to the Tour Championship. With virtually no practice, he finished 22nd out of 30 players.

And there lies the true concern. It's not about skipping out on the remaining holes of the Honda Classic or having to potentially miss this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. It's about practice and preparation, the time spent away from tournament sites working on the various aspects of the game. It's about the hundreds and hundreds of practice balls, the honing of the short game, as well as drills on a practice putting green.

The guess here is that Woods tees off Thursday, his back feeling better after a few days of treatment. If healthy, the four days on the newly renovated Trump National Doral are important to Woods as he tries to find some form after 10 rather lackluster rounds in 2014.

Then we'll wait to hear what's next. Add another tournament? Defend the title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational? Take a trip to Augusta National for pre-Masters preparation?

Who knows. But none of it would be possible if Woods pushed on Sunday and made a bad situation worse. If there's a green jacket or a Claret Jug forthcoming this year, you can bet nobody will remember much about those five holes he skipped at the Honda Classic.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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