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Tiger hobbles into a future more uncertain than ever

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods hopped into the driver's seat of his massive white Mercedes, backed out of his personally assigned parking space in the TPC Sawgrass lot and started steering his way down the interstate toward Orlando.

It's a safe bet that within two hours, he was safely home.

When we'll see him wheeling along again on the PGA Tour, however, is far more difficult to project.

Tiger Woods' unsteady gait mirrors his cloudy future as injuries and poor play threaten to halt his march to history. (AP)  
Tiger Woods' unsteady gait mirrors his cloudy future as injuries and poor play threaten to halt his march to history. (AP)  
As the miles on his personal odometer continue to mount, Woods withdrew from the Players Championship after nine holes Thursday, his short-term schedule and long-term career more in doubt than ever because of an incredible array of injuries.

"I'm having a hard time walking," he said.

For a guy who used to run cross-country in high school and logged thousands of miles of morning road work through his Orlando community over the years, the simple act of walking a golf course is now a challenge. He doesn't jog anymore. And most alarmingly, when he does manage to play on the PGA Tour, he often can't keep up with the pacesetters on the scoreboard anymore.

Woods injured himself on his first swing at 8:10 a.m. Thursday morning, jacking a 3-wood into the left rough and pine straw, a spot tinged with cruel irony. It was a slippery shot from pine straw at Augusta National four weeks ago where he re-injured his left knee to begin with.

On Woods' second swing of the day, his right foot slipped in the straw, he fatted the shot and was off and stumbling to a 6-over 42 on the front nine, which dropped him into dead last among the 72 players on the course.

After he bogeyed the par-5 ninth, he handed his glove to caddie Steve Williams, caught up with playing partner Martin Kaymer and handed the German star his scorecard. The third member of the group, Matt Kuchar, seemed to be slightly surprised when Woods turned and extended a hand after walking off the ninth green.

"I hope you feel better," Kuchar said.

"Thanks, man," Woods replied.

It was only 10:40 and his week was complete. Woods gingerly limped toward the clubhouse and a decidedly uncertain future. It marked the second year in a row that Woods has withdrawn from Sawgrass because of injuries, which have become so troublesome they are difficult to track. Last year, it was a neck issue. This time, it was his left knee, which has already endured four surgeries, and both aching Achilles' tendons.

More than ever, those Grand Slam and PGA Tour records, which seemed to top the game's endangered-species watch list only two years ago as Woods won nearly everything, everywhere, all the time, never looked more etched in concrete. If you can find somebody who isn't aware of what happened Thursday, bet the ranch on Nicklaus holding his ground.

Remarkably, Woods hadn't played in four weeks before he logged nine holes on both Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Given that lengthy layoff, and the fact that it wasn't enough for the ailments to heal, Woods couldn't begin to guess when he would be able to play again. Typically, he would play the Memorial Tournament in three weeks.

"I don't know," he said dejectedly after the round. "I just finished nine holes. Give me a few days to see what the docs say. And we'll take a look at it."

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Watching Woods saunter around the ninth green, surveying another lengthy putt to save par, he was visibly favoring his right knee. He looked like that sitcom character, Fred Sanford, but this was no comedy and nobody was laughing. Woods' game was junked.

Even allowing for the rust from the layoff, it was an atrocious round. He flubbed three wedge shots from close range, including dumping a pitch into a bunker on the ninth, after he had executed a soaring, 290-yard 5-wood from the fairway that sailed over the green and under a tree. Even the good shots turned out badly.

His 42 represented his worst nine-hole score at Sawgrass by a whopping three strokes. He had never posted an 18-hole score worse than 75 at the Players, another mark that was destined to fall had he finished what he started. It was within a stroke of his worst nine-hole score ever on tour.

On the fourth hole, it became embarrassing. He hit his approach into a greenside pond, went to the drop zone, chunked a wedge off the wooden bulkhead fronting the green and watched the ball carom into the water again. He made a triple-bogey that had little to do with his physical aches and pains.

"Those were just bad pitch shots," he said. "Those were just awful."

Woods said he was surprised his condition went south so quickly since he had been cleared to play and had responded well to treatment.

"The Achilles and knee would be sore, but nothing that icing and treatment wouldn't do at night," he said. "This morning, I felt fine during warmup, and then as I played it got progressively worse."

Those final four words pretty succinctly summarize the current state of affairs d' Eldrick. For those who believe in karmic payback, the scorecard for Woods has been pretty lopsided toward the negative of late. He hasn't won a PGA Tour event in 20 months, the longest drought of his career, and he has the brittle body of a Champions Tour player, where the running joke is that breakfast consists of a Diet Coke and four Advil.

For years, he piled up firsts. Now it's seemingly nothing but worsts. He has completed 16 stroke-play rounds this year in the States, scattered over parts of five months. Every night, he's forced to ice and elevate his left knee and get soft-tissue treatment on his ailments.

Now it's back in the hands of the MDs to see if the WDs can be averted.

"They said I could play," Woods said. "The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously. It's a big event and I wanted to come back and play, and unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish."

Given the damage he has wrought on his legs already, Woods was asked whether he should have pulled the plug earlier in the round. He was 5 over after five holes.

Woods never paused.

"Probably," he said.

That was about the only certainty expressed regarding the entire day. Meanwhile, the rest of the month, season and career remain hazier than ever. As Woods pushed the accelerator to the floor on his drive home, he faces more pressing issues than ever.

It looks like he's running out of gas.

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