PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Mark O’Meara never would have seen this coming at The Players Championship.
The 54-year-old O’Meara, who had not competed on the TPC Sawgrass in eight years, rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for a 6-under 66, his lowest score on this crazy course since Tiger Woods was in high school. That left him two shots behind Nick Watney after the opening round Thursday.
But that wasn’t the least bit shocking. O’Meara was in town a few weeks ago and shot 68 from the back tees, so he knew he could do it against the best players in the world, even those half his age.
No, the big surprise was Woods, who withdrew after nine holes with injuries to his left knee and Achilles’. It was the earliest Woods had ever left a golf tournament, and it cast doubt on the rest of his summer, or even his season.
O’Meara played 9-hole practice rounds with Woods on Tuesday and Wednesday and thought he looked particularly sharp. O’Meara and his wife had dinner with Woods on Wednesday night, and he seemed particularly happy.
“He couldn’t have been better. And he picked up the check, so that was awesome,” O’Meara said. “It’s not often he goes to the hip. So I’m saying to you, he’s doing better.”
O’Meara had not even arrived at the golf course for his afternoon tee time when he heard Woods had withdrawn after nine holes with a 42, his highest 9-hole score ever on the TPC Sawgrass.
What’s going on? How bad is he hurt?
Only Woods knows the answers.
“Even as well as I know him, sometimes it’s very difficult to read him. And I think I know him fairly well,” O’Meara said. “I asked him the other day, ‘How’s the leg?’ And he says, ‘It’s fine.’ I don’t know if it’s fine or if he’s just telling me it’s fine.”
O’Meara said he spoke to Sean Foley, Woods’ new coach, who told him that Woods can hit balls, but is having a hard time walking.
Such was the case Thursday – at least that’s what Woods said.
“I’m having a hard time walking,” Woods said upon stopping to chat with reporters before going into a fitness trailer (a sign painted on the side said, “Is knee pain holding you back?”), up the stairs to the parking lot and home to Orlando.
It started with the first swing of the day, a 3-wood into the pine trees, and the second shot wasn’t much better when his left foot slipped on pine straw. That’s what caused this “minor injury” in the first place, during Saturday of the Masters.
He hit one pitch so bad that it banged off the bulk head – from 30 yards away – and into a creek for a triple bogey. And the strangest statistic of all was that Woods hit five out of seven fairways on the front nine, yet didn’t hit a green in regulation except on a par 3.
Woods flexed his left knee after hitting tee shots. He took baby steps to climb out of a bunker. He walked with a golf club for support, lagging a football field behind his playing partners with a noticeable limp. His quickest steps were to catch up to Martin Kaymer on the way to the 10th tee to tell him he was done.
“Tiger looked like he was in pain today,” said Matt Kuchar, the third in their group. “You could tell he was walking quite slowly, quite gingerly. He was last to get to his ball every time. … Probably by the second hole, you could tell that walk wasn’t normal. And I think by the third hole, started seeing some grimacing.”
And so the tournament goes on, as it did last year when Woods pulled out in the middle of the fourth round with a neck injury.
“I feel for my friend to be honest with you,” O’Meara said. “I saw what he went through, when he was dominating the game and playing. I don’t know how anybody can do what he did personally – with everything that’s transpired in his life, on and off the golf course – it just doesn’t turn around like a switch that you can just turn on and say, ‘OK, all that’s done. Now I’m going to start playing great.'”
The crisis in his personal life that led to divorce last summer no longer appears to be the biggest obstacle in regaining his golf game or pursuing Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors.
It’s his health.
Woods already has gone through four surgeries on his left knee. Now he has an Achilles’ problem, too. He has gone 18 months since his last win, three years without adding to his 14 majors, and he has no idea when he will be fit enough to compete again.
“The knee acted up, and then the Achilles’ followed after that, and then the calf started cramping up,” Woods said. “Everything started getting tight, so it’s just a whole chain reaction.”
Asked if he should have walked off the course earlier, Woods replied, “Probably.”
Woods did not practice after the Masters until Monday. He did not play golf until Tuesday at Sawgrass – nine holes, then another nine holes on Wednesday. It was not ideal preparation on a course he does not particularly enjoy.
Foley was with Woods on the practice range Thursday morning and said he looked fine. The coach then went to watch two other clients, and while passing by on the ninth hole noticed that Woods was walking some 40 yards behind the others.
“This week I’ve been quite happy that he had that layoff and still looked quite a bit like the weekend at Augusta,” Foley said. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s so much his swing as the walking, you know? It’s the whole thing. You get out of bed, who knows?”
Watney is atop the leaderboard by one shot over Lucas Glover, who won last week at Quail Hollow. O’Meara is in third place. Normally, that’s a stunning development. On this day, it became a side note.
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