Tiger Woods: The party's over and he's almost out the door

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Tiger Woods withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic before the second round because of a back problem.

The 14-time major winner came back to the game in December after more than a year out recovering from back surgery. 

But the 41-year-old has struggled since, and shot a five-over 77 in the first round at the Emirates Course.

Agent Mark Steinberg said the American suffered a back spasm on Thursday night but was told by Woods that it was not “the nerve pain that's kept him out for so long”.

Steinberg said: “He feels terrible for the tournament. He wants to be here. He can move around. He can’t make a full rotation on the swing. The fact he feels it’s not the nerve pain is very encouraging for him. He’s had some spasms before, no doubt about it.

Mark Sternberg talks to the press

“The short-term prognosis, he thinks, hopefully will be strong, based on the fact it’s not that nerve pain I just alluded to.

“He doesn’t have the strongest back in the world so it’s probably easier to spasm because of the issues he’s had.”

But this latest set-back will again fuel the fires that Woods’ playing career is effectively finished.

“The party is over and he’s almost out the door,” writes Golf World columnist John Huggan. “But we can’t seem to let him disappear quietly into the night.

“Eight long years have passed since Tiger Woods won his 14th and last major championship, the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines. His most recent PGA Tour victory came in the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational. And, as these words are written, he is the 476th best golfer on the planet, right behind Darius Van Driel and just above Seve Benson.

Tiger

“Yet still the world of golf pines for its absent Tiger. The television people do so because they are losing the millions of viewers he brought to the game, those who don’t care about golf but did care about the dude who made the sport cool for just about the first time in its perennially conservative life. And the tours worry that even the stars of today – Rory, Jordan, Rickie, Jason and Bubba – do not come close to competing with the breadth of Tiger’s appeal.

“How could they? Tiger is the first golfer ever to be the most famous sportsman in the world, a height of fame and fortune it is hard to imagine another golfer ever attaining. As for the rest of us, we simply miss watching him play this difficult and infuriating game better than anyone else ever has.

“Golf today has the same fear that pervaded boxing during the waning years of Muhammad Ali’s career. Towards the end of his storied life in the ring, Ali was the beneficiary of many specious points decisions motivated by a deepening dread that, once he was gone, he might take the sport with him.

“In Zaire back in 1974, every journalist covering the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman picked the fearsome giant to win. But the entire boxing community sided with Ali. Fear of the consequences outweighed what was, at the time, the mood of the majority.

“We see the same sort of thing with regard to Tiger. When NBC commentator David Feherty says that Tiger is going to “come back stronger than ever” he is speaking from his heart, not his mind – or under orders from his corporate bosses. Whatever, the former Ryder Cup player is hardly alone in his delusion. Almost weekly we hear from someone with a vested interest spouting similar platitudes.

“The harsh truth is that Tiger isn’t coming back. Not the Tiger we knew anyway. The best we can hope for is a brief cameo before the awful truth finally hits home: Tiger Woods is no longer competitive at the highest level of the game he dominated for so long.

Tiger

“At the end of last year’s Open Championship an amazing statistic emerged. Through that week, Woods and Jordan Spieth had played 20 rounds in the same tournaments. And in those rounds, the 22-year-old Texan had hit the ball 113 times fewer than Woods. Think about that. Every time they teed up on the same course on the same day, Spieth was giving Woods three shots a side in order to have a fair game.

“He actually needed more. Tiger’s discomfort at the Home of Golf was obvious right from the first tee. The shot he hit from that hallowed turf directly in front of the iconic Royal & Ancient Golf Club was not far removed from a duff. Just how far became clear on his second shot. That really was a duff, the ball disappearing into the Swilcan Burn in front of the green.

Tiger

“Tiger might and lightening in a bottle,” says swing coach David Leadbetter. “But he will never get back to where he was. How could he? He played golf better than anyone ever has for 12 years and maybe that was his shelf life. He talked last year of ‘winning next week’ and ‘getting back on track.’ But there was no way given how he was playing then. He wasn’t being honest with himself or us.

“Indeed, when thoughts wander to Tiger it is hard to imagine why he’d ever want to come back. His biggest motivation – overtaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors – is out of reach. So what else can drive him on? Contractual obligations? Perhaps. But not much else.

“Watching Tiger on the course last year, it was hard to imagine he wanted to be there. Once you have been a champion – a great champion – it must be close to impossible to enjoy reduced reality. He was Frank Sinatra stepping onto stage with a sore throat. He was Lionel Messi coming on as a substitute for Forfar Athletic. He was Meryl Streep understudying in summer stock.

“Song-writing duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had it right all those years ago when they plaintively asked where baseball legend Joe DiMaggio had gone. In ‘Mrs Robinson,’ a nation turned its lonely eyes to him in search of salvation. And now golf – forlornly and sadly – is doing the same with Tiger.”

John Huggan follows the PGA and European Tours and has written for Golf World for more than 26 years, as well as authoring seven books.