PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dressed in his Sunday red shirt, Tiger Woods bowed his head and sat in silence in front of his locker.
He was supposed to be on the ninth hole at The Players Championship. In another stunning twist for someone whose life used to be so predictable, Woods withdrew suddenly with neck pain that he fears might be a bulging disk.
Woods was so frustrated that he slammed his golf shoe to the floor while taking questions from three reporters.
“I’ve been playing through it,” Woods said of pain he first felt before the Masters. “I can’t play through it anymore.”
Woods said he did not know what caused the injury, only that “playing doesn’t help it.” He took 10 questions before going into a physical therapy trailer for 37 minutes and leaving the TPC Sawgrass.
“I knew his neck had been bothering him but Tiger doesn’t ever make excuses, so it was hatd (hard) to tell just how bad it was,” swing coach Hank Haney said in a text message to The Associated Press. “Having said that he won the US Open on a broken leg and if he couldn’t play anymore today it must be pretty bad.”
This is Woods’ first withdrawal from a tournament since the Nissan Open at Riviera in 2006, when he narrowly made the cut and withdrew from the final two rounds because of the flu. He also withdrew from the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills as a 19-year-old amateur because of a wrist injury from hitting out of deep rough.
This one caught everyone by surprise.
The only time he had mentioned his neck was during a news conference last month at the Masters. Woods was taken to the hospital Nov. 27 after driving his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree, the infamous accident that set off shocking revelations of extramarital affairs that led to his five-month break from golf.
Asked at Augusta what injuries he suffered that night, Woods said, “I had a busted-up lip and a pretty sore neck, and that was it.”
He didn’t cite pain when he struggled last week at Quail Hollow and missed the cut for the sixth time in his career. But it became obvious something was wrong Sunday on the par-4 seventh hole at Sawgrass.
After hitting his tee shot well right, Woods called for an official. He hit his second shot and grimaced, then walked to the middle of the fairway, shook hands with playing partner Jason Bohn and left in a golf cart. Fans gave him a warm ovation, with one man shouting, “Hurry back, Tiger.”
Bohn noticed that Woods loosened his neck muscles on the first tee, but he didn’t see any signs Woods was in pain until they exchanged pleasantries in the seventh fairway.
“He just said, ‘I”m done,'” Bohn said. “Then I kind of inquired about it. I said, ‘Are you OK? … I said, ‘Is it your wrist?’ He said, ‘No, it’s my neck.’ I could tell when he shook his hand; he kind of stiffened up. When your neck hurts, it’s pretty severe. But you could tell when he was leaving he was in pain.”
The large gallery following Woods dispersed soon after he did. Bohn played the final 11 holes alone — without all the FBI agents dressed in plain clothes, sheriff’s officers and extra volunteers who followed Woods around the Stadium Course all week.
“I was a little disappointed,” Bohn said jokingly after shooting an 8-over 80. “I thought they were there for me to be honest.”
Woods plans to have an MRI next week. He said he was having a hard time with the pain, and that there was a tingling sensation on his right side down to his fingers. As he was driven from the golf course, Woods continually squeezed his right hand and released his fingers.
“I might have a bulging disk,” he said.
Nearly a hundred reporters and photographers waited outside the physical therapy trailer for Woods, who was whisked away in a black SUV without taking more questions.
Woods started the final round 10 shots out of the lead and was 2-over par through six holes. He struggled on just about every hole, finding a bunker off the first tee, coming up short on several approach shots and pushing several tee shots right.
He said pain was bothering him from the time he took the club back until he finished his swing.
“Setting up over the ball is fine, but once I start making the motion, it’s downhill from there,” he said.
It was only his third tournament back from a five-month hiatus after he was caught having extramarital affairs. Woods tied for fourth at the Masters, then missed the cut last week at Quail Hollow with the second-highest round (79) and the highest 36-hole score (153) of his PGA Tour career.
Woods at times stretched and rolled his neck between shots over the last three days, when he produced some good golf along with some shots that didn’t remotely resemble the No. 1 player in the world. He popped up two tee shots with his 3-wood, and hit another one at a 45-degree angle. In relatively easy scoring conditions, Woods had rounds of 70-71-71 and was tied for 45th going into the last round.
He kept his No. 1 ranking, though. Phil Mickelson could have claimed the top spot with a victory Sunday, but he shot 2 over in the final round and tied for 17th — nine strokes behind winner Tim Clark. Mickelson will get another chance to take over the No. 1 ranking at the Colonial in three weeks.
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.