Tiger Woods' future in golf has slipped into deep uncertainty after the 14-time major champion was forced to withdraw from only the third event since his return from two bouts of back surgery. The 41-year-old has pulled out of the Dubai Desert Classic just 18 holes into the event, his first appearance on the European Tour for 18 months.
The American recorded an opening round 77 and looked uncomfortable throughout, but claimed not to be suffering from any pain. The showing left Woods 12 shots off first round leader Sergio Garcia as he faced missing the cut for the second tournament in a row – having lasted just 36 holes on his return to the PGA Tour at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods played competitively for the first time at the Hero World Challenge in December, his first event since undergoing two procedures to fix damaged nerves in his spine. But his latest comeback, coming with Woods ranked 666th in the world, sees his long-term future clouded in doubt.
"He feels terrible for the tournament," agent Mark Steinberg said. "He wants to be here. He can move around. He can't make a full rotation on the swing. Spasms are a funny thing, I'm certainly no doctor but they come and go. The fact he feels it's not the nerve pain that is very encouraging for him. He's had some spasms before, no doubt about it.
"He has to get the spasm to calm down. He has his trainer here which is good and that is who he has been working with for the last few hours. The short-term prognosis, he thinks, hopefully will be strong, based on the fact it's not that nerve pain I just alluded to.
"I saw him before he went to dinner last night, no pain and it is just one of those where it has just happened and we weren't aware of anything yesterday or during the round. I am sure there are several different factors which play into it. I don't know what causes a back to go into spasm.
"He doesn't have the strongest back in the world so it's probably easier to spasm because of the issues he's had. I am sure there are a variety of factors that play into it. He wanted to be here and he feels terrible that he can't finish off."
Speaking after his first round at the Emirates Golf Club prior to the withdrawal, Woods did not complain of any discomfort and cited his execution rather than fitness problems for his poor display. "I wasn't in pain at all," he explained to reporters. "I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn't doing a very good job. At the end I finally hit some good ones but damage had already been done. On top of that, I could have hung in there, I could have shot something near even par if I would have made some putts, but I made nothing."
Following the event in Dubai, Woods had committed to playing the Genesis Open from 16-19 February, which is hosted by his own charitable foundation before playing in the Honda Classic at the end of the month. But having suffered another injury setback less than two months into his latest comeback his next appearance on a golf course is worryingly uncertain.