PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Florida seems to have become the walk-off capital of the golf world, as for the second consecutive year the No. 1 golfer in the world failed to finish the Honda Classic.
Tiger Woods yielded to back spasms Sunday and walked off the back nine at PGA National. Rory McIlroy’s wisdom teeth held on long enough to finish this year, but it proved unpalatable anyway.
Neither of them got the healing result they wanted – or needed – as the Masters Tournament approaches.
“It’s very disappointing,” McIlroy said after blowing a two-shot lead on the course where two years ago he first reached No. 1 in the world with a victory over Woods. “It was a perfect opportunity to win.”
A year after McIlroy walked off in a pique of frustration during a miserable second round at PGA National, he got beaten by former University of Georgia golfer Russell Henley on the first hole of a four-way playoff after a frenetic Sunday when nobody appeared eager to win.
McIlroy seemed almost as chagrined as he was a year ago. Then, he had to apologize a few days later after letting his emotions get the better of him when he bolted in the midst of an even more appalling back nine on Friday and his former management team tried to play it off as a dental instead of mental problem.
“A 74 today wasn’t good enough to get the job done,” said McIlroy, who had a chance to win in regulation but missed an 11-foot eagle putt on the 18th. “Even if I would have won today, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way.”
Henley’s Masters-clinching victory and McIlroy’s late collapse were eclipsed by more injury drama involving Woods. It’s become an almost annual tradition for the world’s best golfer in his home state. He’s looking more like the embodiment of the expression “age is undefeated.”
“It’s my lower back with spasms,” Woods said in a statement through spokesman Glenn Greenspan as he left the course with his son, Charlie, after calling it quits at the 13th green. “It started this morning warming up.”
Woods said “it’s too early to tell” whether he’ll be able to play this week in the WGC event at Doral. “I need treatment every day until Thursday to try to calm it down. We’ll see how it is.”
The lower back spasms were the same as the ones that hindered him in August’s Barclays event in New Jersey, when he fought through the pain to finish second to Adam Scott by a shot.
This time, Woods walked over to playing partner Luke Guthrie and said “I can’t go anymore” after finishing the 13th hole. Guthrie said he noticed Woods “gingerly” teeing up and retrieving his ball as the round progressed. Woods wasn’t right from the start, as he was 5-over par through his first six holes Sunday.
Turns out 3-under 67 could have gotten Woods into the playoff, but he was never close to threatening after his poor start.
“If you’re hurting, you’re hurting,” said Guthrie, who played the last 31 holes with Woods, including his Saturday 65. “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.”
Sunday’s withdrawal is the latest in a troubling trend for the 38-year-old Woods. He has withdrawn seven times in his career with injuries, four of them in the past five years in Florida since returning from major knee surgery after winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines limping on a left leg with a torn ACL and stress fracture.
In 2012, he abruptly withdrew from Doral on Sunday after teeing off the 12th hole, citing a leg injury.
“I felt tightness in my left Achilles warming up this morning, and it continued to get progressively worse,” Woods said then. “In the past, I may have tried to continue to play, but this time, I decided to do what I thought was necessary.”
In the 2011 Players Championship at Sawgrass, Woods shot 42 on his opening nine and withdrew, citing pain in his left knee and Achilles that he later said began when he tried to hit from an awkward stance in the pine straw under the Eisenhower Tree in the final round of the Masters.
In 2010, Woods withdrew from the Players after only seven holes in the final round, complaining of neck pain he feared might be a bulging disk.
“I’ve been playing through it,” Woods said then. “I can’t play through it anymore.”
If Woods doesn’t play at Doral this week, he still is committed to play in Bay Hill two weeks later in a final tune-up before what would be his 20th Masters. Through all of his career aches, pains and personal setbacks, Woods has never missed a start at Augusta since debuting as an amateur in 1995.
But Sunday’s situation casts doubt on whether there is enough time for Woods to recover from his worst career start and reignite his major mission by ending a nine-year victory drought at Augusta.
Time isn’t necessarily on his side in healing all wounds.