Tiger Woods insisted he would be back out for the second round of the Open, but the way he grimaced and talked about how “sore” he was raised fresh doubts about how many more major championships he would be able to grace with his presence.
Woods, the resurrected Masters champion, is in trouble with his back again and made no attempt to hide it as he hauled himself into the interview hut after a troubled seven-over-par round of 78. “I’m sore, yes,” Woods admitted. “Yes there are,” he said when asked whether there were shots he is physically unable to execute.
“I’m just not moving as well as I’d like and, unfortunately, you’ve got to be able to move, especially under these conditions, to shape the golf ball— and I didn’t do that.
“Everything was left to right and I wasn’t hitting the golf ball very solidly. It’s just the way it is. It’s just father time and the procedures I’ve had over time. It’s just the way it’s going to be.
“One of the reasons I am playing less tournaments this year is that hopefully I can prolong my career and be out there a bit longer.”
Woods then headed off to receive treatment as the Royal Portrush crowd chewed over the realisation that the greatest player of the post-Jack Nicklaus era and Rory McIlroy were a combined 15 over for 18 holes. Many also wondered whether Woods’s triumph at Augusta was the end of the comeback trail, not the start of a renewed assault on Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles. Spinal fusion surgery, which Woods had, is the nuclear option for athletes. It would be ominous for his career for Woods to slide back into a constant battle with back pain. “If I’m at home and have school pickup and soccer practices I’m a lot more sore than I am now,” he said. “But playing at this elite level is a completely different deal. You have to be spot on. These guys are too good. There are too many guys that are playing well and I am not one of them.
It’s going to be a lot more difficult. I’m not 24 any more
“My warm-up wasn’t very good. I had a hard time moving. I was just trying to piece together a swing that would get me around the golf course. I made one of the best pars you’ll see on [at the first hole] today. That was a pretty good start, but it was kind of downhill from there.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult. I’m not 24 any more. Life changes, life moves on and, as I’ve told you guys many times, I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to— stand on the range for four or five hours, play 36 holes, go running when I come back, then go to the gym. Those days are gone. I have to be realistic about my expectations and, hopefully, peaking at the right time. I peaked at Augusta well and hopefully I can peak a few more times this year as well.” Woods’s recent two-week holiday in Thailand had already raised questions about his readiness, mental and physical, for this Open Championship. Ex-pros questioned his lack of preparation rounds and looked for hidden meanings. Whatever else caused Woods to scale down his schedule after winning at the Augusta National, pain was clearly the No 1 explanation.
Woods disappeared from the tour between the Masters and the PGA Championship and played only once between the PGA and the US Open, where he wore KT medical tape to counteract neck pain. Then came the family break in Thailand. At Portrush on Sunday he said: “We rode elephants, went on a safari, visited the islands.”
In this first round he was tentative in his movements, ginger when he reached down to pick up his ball. He stretched his back on the tees and relied mostly on his irons off the tees. On the first, he winced when a poor shot went left in the rough.
The cringe may have reflected the quality of the stroke, but his physical stiffness on the front nine indicated some form of pain— or at least pain— avoidance. He started steadily, but went bogey double-bogey at the fifth and sixth holes, then dropped a shot at nine to reach the turn five-over. From there he was in damage limitation mode.
As Woods left for treatment he said: “That’s all I can do. Hopefully the body responds. It’s just the nature of the procedure I had. I’m going to have days like this. I have to fight through. I fought through, but I just didn’t post a very good score.”
That glorious Masters Sunday in Georgia felt like an age ago. And Woods recalled it ruefully: “For some reason I found something in my golf swing that allowed me to shape the ball high and draw the ball again [at Augusta]. Once I found that, playing that golf course, I felt comfortable, and around Tuesday afternoon my putting stroke came around and from there it was just managing my way around the golf course and making sure I didn’t do anything stupid.”
That victory, enjoyed around the world, may be remembered as a brief respite from the damage to his body, which betrayed him again in the wind and cold of County Antrim.