Tiger showing weakness with health, Sunday setbacks

Tiger Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic, barely survived Doral (T-25) and is now sitting this week out at a venue he has won at eight times.

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Editor's note: This feature first ran in Golfweek magazine that hit doorsteps on March 14, 2014. Woods has now withdrawn from the Arnold Palmer Invitational as a byproduct of his back spasms. Also, If you'd like to subscribe to our magazine, click here.

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Tiger Woods used to give us answers on Sundays, definitive ones, punctuated by fist pumps and toothy smiles and trophy hauls. As golf history’s best front-runner, he’d close out a tournament as if it were a foregone conclusion and leave a pack of demoralized faces in his wake.

But now he’s 38 and his back is as temperamental as a 2-year-old who hasn’t eaten for a day. And so we’re getting Sunday breakdowns and questions instead of answers. Mounting questions, such as: How bad is the back? When will it go out next? Will it withstand the long haul?

The question used to be, Will he pass Jack? Now it’s more like, Will he pass a physical? His focus has veered from the victory totals of Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead to the impact of his next back treatment.

This is not the preferred route toward his beloved Masters, but it’s his reality now. His last two weekends were something out of Groundhog Day. Shoot the lowest Saturday score (65 at the Honda Classic, 66 here at the WGC-Cadillac Championship), and then battle a recurring back injury Sunday and fade away with a series of bogeys.

At Honda he walked off after 13 . Here he stuck with it after aggravating the back when hitting a full shot from an awkward bunker stance on No. 6. That led to clear discomfort and his third of six bogeys in a no-birdie 78 .

“That’s what set it off, and then it was done after that,” Woods said. Then the goal was to “keep the spasms at bay.” The more he bent over, the worse it felt. He left talking about “flexion,” a new word in his lexicon.

Woods hit but seven greens in regulation , half of Saturday’s total , and slid from joint fourth to a tie for 25th . People came hoping to see him charge; instead they saw him gingerly bend over numerous times.

If nothing else, the past two weekends showed that when his back is fine, he can put his body in the proper positions and make good swings and go low. But when it flares up, he’s nobody’s threat. He won a major with a broken leg, but that would never happen with a flaring disk.

This is different. He felt pain in his left knee, surgically repaired four times, after hitting shots. Now he feels pain when swinging and addressing the ball. When he talks about “alignment,” it pertains to spine and not shot setup. Preparation now is about therapy rather than practice. He hit no full shots in the three days leading up to the first round.

Woods plans to receive treatment this week, build strength and play the March 20-23 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he has won eight times . The goals are finding health and confidence and washing away the memory of six water balls at difficult, redesigned Trump National Doral.

Because he doesn’t want competitors to know his physical status, Woods long has been secretive about his injuries. It’s no different this time. Asked if he has had or will undergo an MRI, he said, “As I’ve said, we’ve done all the protocols.”

The day before the tournament, Woods said his workouts are designed to prevent injuries and haven’t created them.Some also have wondered if his upper body has become too big, but he debunked that, too.

About the only thing certain is that therapists are the most valuable members of Team Tiger these days. If the 14-time major champion somehow gets fit enough and wins his first Masters since 2005 , perhaps they should get the green jacket.

Or at least a couple of sleeves.

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