Tiger Woods at The Honda Classic

The town and golfers from all walks of life were abuzz with the 2014 Honda Classic, featuring the best field of the year and highlighted by an appearance from Tiger Woods. What a wild and crazy finish to a great golf tournament. Tiger barely made the cut with rounds of 71 and 69, then roared back into contention on Saturday with an amazing round of 65 to put him in the top 20, even though his ball-striking was questionable. Everyone wanted to see what he would do on Sunday, and he continued his preparation for the upcoming Masters. To everyone’s surprise, Tiger struggled mightily, playing the first 13 holes in 5-over par. Then, after shaking hands on the 13th green with his playing partner Luke Guthrie, Woods got into a black SUV and withdrew from the tournament. As Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner reported, “What we do know is this: This is Woods’ seventh career withdrawal, and his fourth in the past five years. That he has pulled out for four different ailments – knee, Achilles, neck and now back – only casts further doubt as to whether he will ever again be able to play an injury-free season.

If nothing else, Sunday served as a stark reminder that it is Woods’ brittle body – not his mind or game – that stands as his main obstacle to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. This marks the first time in Woods’ career that he has failed to record at least one top-10 finish in his first three starts of a season. His previous worst opening stretch was 2011, and that eventually turned into a lost year, after missing three months (and two majors) with injuries to his knees and Achilles’ tendon. Now, Woods is rusty, injured and seemingly disinterested at times. He clearly eased into the year because of a late-2013 injury and can’t chisel off the rust or, more importantly, return to 100-percent health.

To recap, he missed the 54-hole cut at Torrey Pines, where he had won eight times as a pro. Then came the listless T-41 in Dubai, where he was a two-time winner. And now, after an efficient Saturday 65 that prompted many to proclaim that all is right with the world No. 1, he was 5 over par (and back to even for the tournament) when he walked off after 13 holes. Prior to withdrawing, he was missing fairways with irons. He was flubbing pitches around the green. He was fighting a two-way miss with the driver – on the par-5 third, he blasted one 40 yards right into the pond; three holes later, he sniped one left into the drink. Luke Guthrie, who was paired with Woods during both weekend rounds, noticed that Woods began gingerly teeing up the ball and plucking it out of the cup on the 11th hole. Soon after, Woods made a short par putt on 13, walked up to Guthrie and said, “I can’t go anymore,” and headed toward the white van. “If you’re hurting, you’re hurting,” Guthrie said afterward. “You don’t need to risk injuring yourself even more. He’s had his share of problems with injuries. There’s no reason for him to chance it if he’s really hurting.” Much like in 2012, when Woods withdrew from Doral only to return two weeks later and win at Bay Hill, this injury is even more significant because of the timing. Here’s a trivia question: How many times has Woods won the Masters without a victory earlier in the season? Answer: Zero.” And the golf world waits and wonders once again as Augusta approaches.